Thursday, July 30, 2009

Polyamory Next?

Will Christian churches actually come under internal pressure to bless polyamorous unions?

Suppose, contrary to facts as they stand, that secular American society ended up legally recognizing polyamorous unions, so that one could go to a justice of the peace and have one's polyamorous union given legal standing by civil authorities. What should the Church do, as a matter of general policy, in such a case?

One would hope the Church has by that time developed a better theological understanding of marriage, so that it can render intelligible, if not persuasive, to civil society whatever it ends up doing. I would hope the Church could mount a convincing defense of--how shall we call it?--binary marriage unions, and this is what it would likely do.

But why? What makes binary rather than polyamorous unions so special? Can we say anything persuasive? Suppose the Christian polyamorist argued:

(1) The Bible supports unions exhibiting fruits of the Spirit;
(2) The Church is permitted to bless unions that the Bible supports;
(3) Some polyamorous unions exhibit fruits of the Spirit;
Thus, (4) the Church is permitted to bless those polyamorous unions that exhibit fruits of the Spirit.

Will GC resolutions follow on (4)? What's wrong with that argument? Or do you think that anything is wrong with it? I have some ideas about what's wrong with it that I'll share in a bit, but I wanted first to ask the question.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Archbishop Williams' Latest Missive

+Williams' latest missive directed to the Anglican Communion, concerned with GC2009, should not come as much of a surprise. If anything, there is a softening to his rhetoric around the Covenant and his curious notion of--what shall we call it?--diocesan autonomy. In particular, the menace implicit in his near-closing remarks (4.25),

the question is being more sharply defined of whether, if a province declines such an invitation, any elements within it will be adopt the Covenant,

is softened by the parenthetical--and new?--

granted the explicit provision that the Covenant does not purport to alter the Constitution or internal polity of any province. A year or so ago he might have encouraged dioceses to break away, discounting the reality of what he here calls the "local church" altogether; we should be thankful for this small movement in his apparent ecclesiology.

My main concern is with section 2, where there does not seem to be much movement in his thinking (his pre-office writings now ancient history), and where he seems to take sharpest issue with TEC's actions. He opens with a wonderfully crisp Modus Tollens (spread out over 2.6-8) which may well represent the hardest and most recalcitrant element in his thinking on display in the missive:

(1) If the Church is free to recognize SSUs..., then there would be a strong consensus and solid theological grounding in the Church for that freedom.
(2) There is no such strong consensus and theological grounding in the Church.
Thus, (3) the Church is not free to recognize SSUs....

I am pretty sure Williams' MT is unsound, as (1) looks false to me. It seems the New Testament offers evidence of liberties taken before there was strong consensus, or--please--at least solid theological grounding. It is hard to imagine the earliest generations of the Church as capable of providing a strong theological grounding--in a sense univocal with Williams'--for any of the innovations they developed. It seems rather that such a capacity took centuries to develop, and that in fact what was developed is now seen as largely in error: who takes the impassible God of the Creeds seriously high up in the AC anymore? Or the Creeds' substance metaphysics? Do we have to accept Leontius of Byzantium's interpretation as truth, or, rather Truth?

(2) might be true, but it is decidedly odd. He is not saying unanimity is required, and he later on implies the lack of "strong consensus" may be an error (3.14-15)--so exactly where is the line where "strong consensus" is achieved? I would bet he has absolutely no clear idea, and he is not nearly fool enough to offer anything definite. Should we read "strong" as requiring a supermajority, so that we should see God as moving through overwhelming numerical superiority? That seems rather unbiblical to me, or at least ad hoc--a concession to the sorts of cultural feelings of propriety whose normativity for the Church Williams elsewhere questions.

But then what? An ecumenical council? Could such a provision be maintained for other areas of innovation over which he presides in the CoE and AC? Is there strong consensus in the Church--not merely a local church like the CoE mind you, or a mere clot of locals like the AC, for ordaining women to the episcopate? It seems to me a double standard is not a particuarly good standard. Williams does not--after all this time and all this wrangling--have a defensible standard to offer the Anglican Communion, and while that is no sin, it is worthwhile noting.

I think Williams' opening argument in section 2 is unsound--but that is not the worst part of section 2. Things deteriorate precipitously after the second sentence of 2.8, right through 3.11.

First, there is what seems to me like a bone-headed error, a possibly revealing slip which he might wish to have edited out. He thinks it follows on (3) that:

a person living in such a union [a SSU] is in the same case as a heterosexual person living in a sexual relationship outside the marriage bond....

According to Williams, the case of a same sex couple that has sought out the blessing of the Church (big "c"), and irregularly received such a blessing, is equivalent to the case of a single heterosexual person--not even a couple--living outside the marriage bond. It is not merely that the situation of a hetero couple that merely cohabits but does not want marriage--having the real possibility of marriage open to them--is being compared to a same sex couple that wants to marry but cannot, not having the possibility open.

That would be bad enough for Williams, because their situations are obviously different: optional mere cohabitation and cohabitation without the marriage option are different, and, um, the difference seems morally relevant. How on earth could he discount it? Now add in that the relevant same sex couples want to be married, but cannot be--the difference is even more glaring. Irregular blessings do not exist for Williams; let us pass over them for his sake.

Anyhow, Williams is implying that for the Church, these obvious differences amount to no moral difference which the Church is free to take into account when delivering blessings; indeed, more: no moral difference, period. But that is just wrong. If the Church were mistaken about not getting behind blessing same sex unions--something Williams has implied is possible--that would not affect their sacramental character. They would have a sacramental character even without the recognition of the Church; so the Church regards the marriage sacrament. That is to say, pace Williams, the truth of (3) would not imply there is no difference between the same sex couple and the hetero single, as the Church could be wrong and the sacrament could be present for the same sex couple.

However, the real kicker is his likening the same sex couple to a heterosexual individual sleeping around, as if the couple's bond is nonexistent, as if there is nothing there that would make the couple more than one individual sleeping around and another individual sleeping around. That is, to say the least, insulting. But it also seems to defy reality; there are lifelong, exclusive, loving homosexual unions. That seems, one would think, to be different from the swinging single's case in a way that the Church, and Williams, should register.

But it doesn't register with him, and--alas--its not registering does not seem to be a cognitive slip or a mere fault of expression. He writes

In other words, the question is not a simple one of human rights or human dignity. It is that a certain choice of lifestyle has certain consequences.

Does he know better? Who knows. Is being gay a lifestyle? What exactly is a lifestyle? Is being gay something that gays choose? All of them? This seems comic. I submit what seems to me to be obvious:

there are cases of gays who are homosexual without there having been an occasion, a time t, in each of their cases at which they effectively chose to be gay.

Bulletin to the Archbishop: that's not how it works. Being gay is not, and certainly is not always, a mere lifestyle that is chosen. There are, for instance, habits, dispositions, nonconscious desires and mental content, and socialization to take account of; extend the list ad plac.

Strictly speaking, Williams' argument in 2.6-8 may be ignored if--as it seems--he means to address people who choose to adopt a gay lifestyle. It seems to be that the Episcopal Church means to minister to, and has baptized, genuinely gay people, men and women who--shock!--really are gay through and through, and not just sampling the wares like Williams' single heterosexual on the prowl. If we are to take Williams at his word, then contrary to what might have been his intention, he is not addressing what TEC intends to do by blessing SSUs. A fort, he really has nothing to say here about ordaining gays.

In a deep sense, we are talking past one another.

There is more to say; someone should take him to task for positing the separation of sacred and secular realms, as if there are secular facts really distinct from the religiously significant. I hope he does not believe that, but the missive seems to presuppose such a distinction.

I will stop with just one more point. Williams wrote (2.7)

In the light of the way the Church has consistently read the Bible for the last two thousand years, it is clear that a positive answer to this question....

Ugh. Is there really a single way the Church has read the Bible over the course of its existence on any question, much less the one of blessing SSUs? Why all the make-believe? There's the obvious problem that there have been several different ways the Church has read the Bible over its history, and not merely one way. There's the problem too that there is no one Bible for the Church, even now, that could be read or referred to as object for this fictional One Way of Reading. And then there is the problem that the Church existed for some time without a Bible, but merely with its "Scripture" being a version of pre-Jamnia Hebrew Scripture not quite the same as our Anglican OT--likely the LXX, with some really wild stuff like the Enoch literature added on. In other words, he should be a little more circumspect before perpetuating partisan fictions.

But the main point is, even if there were exactly one Bible and exactly one right way of reading it, would we be reading about people who are gay? That seems to me to be a substantive question, and one pressed by Williams' bizzare picture of gays having chosen a gay lifestyle. If the Bible on homosexuality merely addressed heteros who tried to exchange their hetero orientation for a gay one (a la Romans), that would not carry obvious implications for people who are gay simpliciter, without any exchange. If it did not seem to recognize there were gay Israelites in speaking to men having sex with men, the same question arises: is this speaking to people who are gay? It may be, even if Williams were right about the Bible and reading, the impressive historical consensus on homosexual activity does not speak directly to people who are gay. For all the years and all the unanimity, there is a yet a gap, a question about whether all of that addresses people who are gay, who really are gay. And alas: the Bible will not speak of itself to that question.

What makes this worse: it seems the Church will succeed in avoiding this gap if it can. TEC and gays in general are not powerful enough to compel the Church here below to take the question up qua question. Those on whose behalf the question would be taken up are--considering them worldwide--among the weak, the marginalized, the unseen.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Intitial Reaction to GC2009

Taking D025 in the context of C056, I think the Episcopal Church has decisively moved away from its earlier de facto moratoria on ordaining openly homosexual candidates to the episcopate and performing same sex unions. It is notable that the moratoria held from GC2006 until now; this suggests to me that GC2009's moves are deliberate ones, as circumspect as we can reasonably expect from such institutions as the HoB and HoD. There is no practical way of returning to a status quo ante.

Various schismatic Anglican movements will be re-invigorated by GC2009; what had been a rather disappointing denouement may turn out to be meaner-spirited and more divisive than anything we have seen up until now. Here is one well-informed comment from a priest who may be something of a conservative-moderate:

This convention (when the Deputies concur with the Bishops tomorrow) has abrogated every positive gesture it has made toward the Anglican Communion since 2003. Everything we did three years ago in response to the Windsor Report is down the drain.

Moderates who feel this way may find it increasingly difficult to remain moderate and not to join in some schismatic Anglican movement; they may find this to be a time of trial.

While I support these resolutions, having supported GC2003, I am haunted by a sense that the Church lacks the cognitive means at this time for conducting a debate on--or even for collectivelyruminating over--the issues these resolutions raise. I don't just mean the Episcopal Church, but all the Church's bits and bobs. We are living through an era of inescapable theological pluralism, where different parties in the Church operate from within different conceptual frameworks whose overlap on basic points does not preserve an overall common intelligibility. For instance, I might approach these questions from a Thomistic or Scotistic point of view--but nearly nobody else will, and the result is that I will not mean what most other Christians nowadays mean by "God", "Christ", "Trinity", "Incarnation", etc. We might be using the same words, but we will not mean the same things by them: we will be equivocating in the course of arguing with each other, or even discussing peaceably.

One upshot of this conceptual pluralism is that it is likely most people are wrong on every substantive question of theological detail. That is, most Christians will live out their lives here below in a state of material heresy on virtually every matter of dogmatic detail. Our sincere efforts will fall short in ways we will not realize, regardless of our sincere efforts.

This is worth keeping in mind when deciding how to react in days and weeks and months ahead, as the sounds of GC2009 reverberate throughout the Communion. Right practice will come to matter even more where right belief slips through our fingers. We just cannot quite manage right belief, but we must still live with each other, pray with each other, and commune with each other. It will help perhaps if we hesitate to regard each other as wicked--as formal heretics--because we disagree and cannot even meet each other on common conceptual ground. We should hope for the grace to mutually bear the burden of our all-too-human inadequacy.