What Gene Robinson means

While U.S. Episcopalians struggled through a difficult convention in Minneapolis last month, a Baltimore Sun reporter put the following lead on his story:

“As they battled over confirmation of the nation’s first openly gay elected bishop — and wrestled with charges that he had engaged in sexual misconduct — a subtle subtext emerged in the public comments of some Episcopal clergy last week: We handle these issues differently than the Roman Catholic Church.”

They certainly do. No one in Minneapolis made that clearer than the controversial bishop-elect in question, Gene Robinson. Agreeing that his confirmation reflected a profound change in Anglican teaching on homosexuality, Canon Robinson remarked, “Just simply to say that it goes against tradition and the teaching of the Church and Scripture does not necessarily make it wrong.”

Which, in fact, says it all. If neither Scripture, nor tradition, nor the settled teaching of the Church for two millennia is authoritative, then what is? The “signs of the times,” evidently — whether those be the “signs of the times” as read by Henry VIII, or the “signs of the times” as defined by New York Times editorials today. It’s striking that in both the 16th century and the 21st century the question for Episcopalians has come down to this: What is authoritative for the Church? Scripture, tradition, and consistent teaching, apostolically rooted? Or the “signs of the times”?

The decisions taken at Minneapolis will have serious consequences throughout the Anglican Communion. Leaders of the most vibrant Anglican churches in the world, in Africa, will almost certainly not recognize the validity of a decision to ordain an avowed and practicing homosexual to the episcopate; they also fear what this decision means for their relations with Muslims. Moreover, the decision in favor of Canon Robinson’s ordination, and the rationale given for it, are going to make the international Anglican-Catholic theological dialogue even more difficult.

In retrospect, the handwriting was on the wall years ago for this once-promising dialogue. In a 1984-1986 exchange of letters, Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Johannes Willebrands (then the Holy See’s chief ecumenical officer), and Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury (titular head of the Anglican Communion) discussed the ecumenical difficulties created by the decision of some Anglican churches to ordain women to the priesthood. Archbishop Runcie agreed that such a dramatic shift in practice could not be justified by a mere appeal to the culture of the day — to the “signs of the times,” as it were. But then the archbishop argued that a male priesthood weakened the Church’s witness at a time “when exclusively male leadership has been largely surrendered in many human societies.”

So sociology trumps theology. As it did in Henry VIII’s 16th century, when an expansive government and a rising entrepreneurial class needed the vast financial resources of the monasteries of England — and took them. As it did in the 1930s, when the Anglican Communion became the first Christian community to justify the use of artificial contraceptives as a means of family planning. As it did these past three decades, when Anglican communities ordained women as priests and bishops. And as it did in Minneapolis, when the claims of gay liberation were deemed of more consequence than, as Canon Robinson himself put it, “tradition and the teaching of the Church and Scripture.”

Like many others, I once looked forward to the day of “full ecclesial unity” between Rome and Canterbury, as Archbishop Runcie aptly put the ecumenical goal in his letter to the Pope. That grand dream has been shattered. John Henry Newman was right: Anglicanism does not stand between Rome and the communities of continental Protestantism (Lutheran, Calvinist, and so forth). Anglicanism is a theologically unstable form of Protestantism. Indeed, as the Anglican Communion has evolved, much of its British, North American, and Australasian leadership typifies what Newman bitterly critiqued in 1879 as “liberal” religion — religion that we make up as we go along, rather than revealed religion to which we submit ourselves in the obedience of faith.

“Just simply to say that it goes against tradition and the teaching of the Church and Scripture does not necessarily make it wrong.” That’s Newman’s “liberal” religion in a sentence. And it is killing the Anglican-Catholic dialogue.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash