Anglican Fissure - A Tale of Three Loves

Fri, 11/12/2020 - 14:43 -- James Oakley
Bishop Bill Love

In 1960, C S Lewis published a book entitled The Four Loves. It has become a classic. He explains that there are four different Greek words for our English word "love", and they have different meanings. There is the bond of love within a family, the love of friendship, erotic love, and charity. This latter, translating the Greek word agape (ἀγαπη), is the love of God, and the pinnacle of Christian virtue, the love that sums up God's requirements.

Unfortunately, modern students of Lewis have been less careful than he was. Each of those words has a range of meaning, and caution is needed as to how much to conclude because a particular Greek word was used. It is a fallacy to say that the use of a particular Greek word always carries all of the freight of the distinctives of that particular word. The most common example is in John 21, where Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, only using the word agape the third time. Don Carson points out that in 2 Timothy 4:10, Demas deserted Paul because he "loved" (agape) this world.

In short, in Greek as well as in English, one word for "love" can mean several different things. Indeed, in 2 Timothy 3:1-5, the apostle Paul makes exactly this point. Love itself is not a virtue. It all hangs on what one loves, the object of one's love.

I want to reflect on some of the recent developments in the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion, using three different meanings of the word "love" as a hook. We are repeatedly being told that the paramount virtue is love, and that we need to give love full expression as the Church and the Communion move forwards. I want to slow us down, and ask what we mean.

Advanced warning: At least one of the three meanings is so clearly a homonym that it's almost a painful pun. But God is sovereign, and in the unfolding story of human sexuality in the Anglican Church, there have been many instances of key figures in the story having apposite names. It's enough to make Roger Hargreaves or John Bunyan proud.

1. The Power of Love

On 19th May 2018, Michael Curry (presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church in the United States) preached at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in Windsor Chapel. The wedding, including the sermon, was televised and watched all over the world.

There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even over-sentimentalize it. There’s power – power in love. If you don’t believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to centre around you and your beloved. Oh there’s power – power in love. Not just in its romantic forms, but any form, any shape of love. There’s a certain sense in which when you are loved, and you know it, when someone cares for you, and you know it, when you love and you show it – it actually feels right. There’s something right about it. There is something right about it. And there’s a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of love, and our lives were meant – and are meant – to be lived in that love.

People loved the sermon. Partly, they loved the cultural subversion. There was something about Curry's delivery that stood out refreshingly at a quintessentially English royal wedding. But they loved the content too. What is there to disagree with in the above quotation? Surely he's right. Surely, if we can recapture love as the hallmark of all our communities, the world would be transformed.

It all depends, of course, on what he means by love. What does it look like when he seeks to lead an Anglican province in this way of love?

2. Bishop Bill Love

On 2nd October 2020, a disciplinary hearing panel ruled against Bill Love, Bishop of Albany in the Episcopal Church.

Bishop’s Love’s actions in issuing a Pastoral Direction to his clergy that they refrain from performing same-sex marriages violated the Discipline and Worship of the Church as Bishop Love promised in his ordinal vows. His actions, therefore, constitute a breach of Canon IV.3.2(a). TEC’s Motion for Summary Judgment is granted. Respondent’s Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment is denied.

The background to this is long and complicated, and I won't tell the full story here. Instead, I'd recommend two articles by Andrew Goddard on the personal blog of Ian Paul: Bishop Bill Love, TEC, and same-sex marriage in the church (14 Oct 2020), and Bill Love, TEC and same-sex marriage: implications (15 Oct 2020). Let me summarise, however.

Within TEC, there has been a movement towards redefining marriage away from the biblical definition (a union between one man and one woman, entered into as a lifelong covenant), to include same sex unions as well. At first, rites were authorised to allow blessing in church of a same-sex marriage solemnised by the civil authorities. Then, in 2015, rites were approved on a trial basis to solemnise those marriages in church.

Two things enabled those who held a biblical view of marriage to stay. 1. It was a trial. It was stressed that the Prayer Book of TEC was unaltered. 2. Each diocesan bishop had to authorise these new rites in their diocese, and could refuse if they wished.

That changed in 2018, when the General Convention wanted these rites to be available in every diocese (where State law permitted same-sex marriage). Diocesan bishops who did not want to be involved could ask a neighbouring bishop to oversee this side of things in their diocese. Most bishops did this, but Bill Love decided that he could not allow something that went against the teaching of Scripture. He wrote a pastoral letter to his diocese in November 2018, in which he said:

Until further notice, the trial rites authorized by Resolution B012 of the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church shall not be used anywhere in the Diocese of Albany by diocesan clergy (canonically resident or licensed), and Diocesan Canon 16 shall be fully complied with by all diocesan clergy and parishes.

Disciplinary proceedings were initiated, and (as I said earlier) ruled against him. On 24th October 2020, he chose to resign rather than appeal. He will no longer be Bishop of Albany from 1st February 2021.

Andrew Goddard, in the two articles linked above, does a good job drawing out the implications of this. To summarise the key ones:

  • The ruling makes clear that the "trials", initially designed to make sure no change was made to the authorised Prayer Book, are in fact now being seen as effecting just such a change.
  • It increasingly appears that the 2015 resolve, to ensure space for those who still hold to a biblical view of marriage, has evaporated.
  • This latest step will increasingly strain further TEC's membership of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
  • If the Church of England were to start down the same road, say initially authorising services of blessing for civilly contracted same-sex marriages, we can see the difficulties we would face. These would be more pronounced, as the different polity in the Church of England means diocesan bishops would be unlikely to get the kind of opt-out that served Bishop Love well for the first 5 years.

I can see other, even more ominous, implications of all this. But before I draw those out, it's time for the third "love".

Living in Love and Faith

On 9th November 2020, the Church of England published a set of resources known as Living in Love and Faith.

The most immediate background is in February 2017. The Church of England had been through a process tautologously named "shared conversations". Across the country, carefully facilitated discussions took place, across the spectrum of views on human sexuality, to aim for mutual understanding. The House of Bishops reported back to General Synod, amongst other things saying that:

While moral questions remain for the Church of England about the status of sexual relationships between people of the same gender, the House of Bishops has affirmed that stable, faithful homosexual relationships can “embody crucial social virtues” of fidelity and mutuality. 

The recommendation was that General Synod "takes note" of the Bishops' report. This is not to agree or disagree with its contents, but simply to say that it's been received. Taking note of something is usually routine and uncontroversial. Unusually, and almost unprecedented, Synod voted against taking note. This was a decisive rebellion against the process, and the two archbishops wrote a public letter in response.

To deal with that disagreement, to find ways forward, we need a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church. This must be founded in scripture, in reason, in tradition, in theology; it must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships, and in a proper 21st century understanding of being human and of being sexual. We need to work together - not just the bishops but the whole Church, not excluding anyone - to move forward with confidence.

They then proposed two ways forwards. First:

As Archbishops we will be establishing a Pastoral Oversight group led by the Bishop of Newcastle, with the task of supporting and advising Dioceses on pastoral actions with regard to our current pastoral approach to human sexuality. The group will be inclusive, and will seek to discern the development of pastoral practices, within current arrangements.

As a result, in almost every diocese in England, all kinds of practices and events have been taking place that stretched the "current arrangements" (current doctrine and law on marriage) to breaking point, by allowing events on the ground that reflect a change of position in all but name.

Secondly, we, with others, will be formulating proposals for the May House of Bishops for a large scale teaching document around the subject of human sexuality. In an episcopal church a principal responsibility of Bishops is the teaching ministry of the church, and the guarding of the deposit of faith that we have all inherited. The teaching document must thus ultimately come from the Bishops.

The result was Living in Love and Faith, a 2 year project whose publication was delayed 6 months by Covid-19.

Since commissioning it, the "teaching document" has morphed into a "mapping exercise". Instead of teaching what orthodoxy is in the area of marriage, LLF aims to map out the range of views that exist. It does this through a book, but also a series of videos in which people from different views and lifestyles set out their position. Each interviewee ends their interview by saying "I am living in love and faith" (or "we are …").

The next step is 12 months of discussions across dioceses and deaneries, before returning to General Synod to consider proposals that the bishops are developing. To many, there's a strong sense of deja-vu about this. However, it feels to me inevitable that we are moving towards being asked to accept that there is a range of belief and practice. We need to accept that beliefs we may not agree with are equally valid, and are expressions of faithfulness to Christ for those who hold them.

There are two reasons why things seem to be heading this way.

1. Having allowed "events on the ground" to advance ahead of any official change of position, it would be nigh impossible to then announce that the conclusion is that the traditional view of marriage is also that of the Bible, and so that of the risen Christ, and therefore all innovative practices that do not conform to this view must cease.

2. The whole tone of the Living in Love and Faith material is about understanding other viewpoints, and recognising that those viewpoints are an expression of both love and Christian faith.

The Three Loves

So now let's put the picture together.

It would seem that when "the power of love" gets to work in an Anglican province, it entails depriving a bishop named Bishop Love from being able to fulfil his ordination and consecration vows. Those who hold to the Bible's view of marriage are being increasingly driven out.

Andrew Goddard showed how optional new rites would be even harder to accept in England, because new practices tend to apply to the whole of the Church of England. Bishops wouldn't be given the chance to opt their diocese out. That is a necessary caution as we enter the LLF discussion period.

However there is another reason why Bishop Love's effective dismissal is ominous for the whole LLF process.

If I'm right, LLF is about taking us to a place where we accept that there are different views on marriage. The Church of England would then become a tolerant Church, where the biblical view is believed and practiced alongside other persuasions.

That, in itself, would be problematic, because the Bible's view is not merely one view amongst many. Biblical Christianity seeks not to divide over secondary issues, but also recognises that there are primary issues and we do not tolerate the worship of different gods. I wrote about this back in February 2017: The view that the Bible's teaching on marriage is merely one option is a heretical view. The establishment may think they've created a space for the traditional view to flourish, but the biblical view is not that that traditional view is optional.

What Bill Love's story shows us is that the place we are being taken through LLF is inherently unstable. The new approach to human sexuality is not satisfied with being placed alongside the older, orthodox, biblical view. It is a cuckoo. It will steal a place in the nest of traditional Christianity, but eventually will throw the eggs of the biblical Jesus out of the nest so that its own young can have the whole nest to itself. Tolerance is not a permanent virtue. It is a temporary virtue for a culture shifting from one set of absolutes to a different set.

So I would suggest that the story of the Bishop of Albany is a caution to evangelicals to think carefully how to engage with LLF. Yes, the exact outcome is not yet written. But the process itself has been set up to lead to a certain set of outcomes, which feature some species of tolerating diversity. The a priori assumptions built into the process do not allow for an outcome where biblical truth is proclaimed without hesitation.

The late Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. once said and I quote: “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.”

So said Michael Curry, and he's right. But we have to be clear what we mean by the word "love". Beware lest love becomes a wax nose. Beware of being led to tolerate people abandoning the clear teaching of the Jesus of history whilst saying they walk in the Christian faith and the way of love. Because that's the road trodden in TEC, and it led them to a place where Christ is driven out of his own church. In the name of living in love and faith, the resulting lack of tolerance would be the opposite of agape, of love.

"Dear children, let us not love with words or speech, but with actions and in truth." (1 John 3:18)

"This is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love." (2 John 6)

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