Fruits of Repentance

Date of publication

Fruits of Repentance

by Andrew Goddard (Jan 18, 2005)

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"We repent… we as the House of Bishops express our sincere regret for the pain, the hurt, and the damage caused to our Anglican bonds of affection by certain actions of our church… we express this regret as a sign of our deep desire for and commitment to continuation of our partnership in the Anglican Communion… We pray our brothers and sisters throughout the Anglican Communion will forgive us"

Faced with such words it is perhaps understandable why The New York Times has claimed that "as the Windsor Report called for, they issued a statement expressing their "sincere regret for the pain, the hurt, and the damage caused to our Anglican bonds by certain actions of our church."" (italics added). It is also a conclusion that may be drawn by those who only hear the words when they are read out - as the Pastoral Letter must be according to canon law - in church.

So why then did over 20 bishops issue a minority report? Why are so many who wish to uphold Communion teaching and discipline not satisfied with the Pastoral Letter?

The difficulties are two-fold: the failure to express regret in the terms called for by the Windsor Report and the interpretation that must be put on the words quoted above when set in the context of the letter as a whole.

The weakness of the words is clear when the letter turns to the specific actions called for from ECUSA by The Windsor Report and complied with fully in the minority report. These regarded two areas:

a moratorium on election and consent to the consecration of any candidates "living in a same gender union until some new consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges" (§134) and

a call 'for the sake of our common life' to 'all bishops of the Anglican Communion' not to proceed 'to authorise public Rites of Blessing for same sex unions' (§143) and for provinces to 'take responsibility for endeavouring to ensure commitment on the part of their bishops to the common life of the Communion on this matter' (§144).

Here the Pastoral Letter speaks only of a 'brief meeting' with 'extensive discussion'. However, regarding future consecrations, the bishops have 'only begun a serious and respectful consideration of how we might respond'. They 'have not had sufficient time to give substantive consideration' to the recommendation on rites of blessing (despite the fact that their own theological committee advised against these just before General Convention in 2003). They will, however, give 'a more thorough consideration' to this in March 2005 after the Primates meet, although they are careful to emphasise that 'we do not wish to act in haste'.

This, of course, ignores the fact that the Report has now been available for nearly three months, its recommendations in relation to ECUSA are clear and brief, and the importance of the Primates' Meeting in February has been regularly highlighted. It also glosses over the appeal by Bishop John Howe to devote the 'brief meeting' to those aspects of the Report that addressed ECUSA directly. The contrast with the reported response of the Church of England House of Bishops - support for the Report and implementation of its recommendations - is stark.

The bishops open and close the letter by reference to Epiphany. The gospel reading last Sunday - the first Sunday of Epiphany - was Matthew's account of Jesus' baptism by John (Mt 3.13-17). Perhaps the preceding narrative speaks most directly to the Pastoral Letter and the situation in ECUSA. There, John the Baptist responds to the Jewish leaders coming out to him -

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Mt 3.7-8).

True repentance involves admitting what one has done wrong, being sorry for it and so turning away from it and amending one's pattern of life. The Anglican moral theologian Lindsay Dewar in his Outline of Anglican Moral Theology wrote of forgiveness - what ECUSA asks for and what TWR says is needed (§134) - as 'the restoration to fellowship…reconciliation' (p138). He quotes Archbishop William Temple, "To forgive is to restore to the old relationship" and then asks how broken relationships are to be healed. It requires, he says, 'forgivingness' on the part of the injured party and repentance on the part of the offender. Repentance "means saying 'I am sorry' and meaning it, and this involves the willingness to make amends and to forgive others" (p139).

The explicit refusal of the bishops to produce fruit keeping with repentance that is seen in their unwillingness to accept the unanimous recommendations of the Windsor Report is a sure sign that the regret they express is either not genuine or not regret of the form asked for by the Lambeth Commission. And yet there is clear and - one must believe - sincere expressions of regret and a request for forgiveness. But regret for what? Forgiveness for what wrong ECUSA confesses to have done?

There appears to be genuine regret for pain, hurt and damage caused by ECUSA actions. There does not, however, appear to be any regret for the actions that caused that pain, hurt and damage.

In fact, in almost the only recommendation addressed to ECUSA that the Bishops felt able to respond to, there is great eagerness to "offer a theological explanation of how 'a person living in a same gender union may be considered eligible to lead the flock of Christ'". This is seen as "a sign of respect for gay and lesbian persons in our common life and of our ongoing pastoral care for them" and an opportunity to "share more of the prayerful conversations and studies on the ministries and contributions of homosexual persons in the church that have enriched our experience for many years". As such it is claimed this "would strengthen our communion". This is presumably a fruit of the bishops' commitment to "practice the more intentional consultative processes called for by the Windsor Report".

It is after this paragraph that the bishops note their prayer that "our brothers and sisters throughout the Anglican Communion will forgive us". This conjunction - and the clear and unique practical commitment given in relation to offering an explanation - makes clear the heart of the regret and the substance of the repentance. It is simply for this failure to explain themselves and share their experience of "how the Holy Spirit is acting in our different contexts". That failure - which clearly expresses "a failure to honor Christ's presence in one another" - is something the bishops do repent of and ask forgiveness for. But that, it appears, is all. Certainly it is the only fruit of repentance evident in the letter.

But is that not what the Windsor Report sought? Certainly, it is part of what it sought and that is perhaps a sign of hope. However, the gulf between the Pastoral Letter's construal of regret and repentance and that of the Report is clear when examining the words of the key para 134, cited and accepted in the minority report. In addition to regret for consequences - which is present in the Pastoral Letter - the Report asks ECUSA "to express its regret that the proper constraints of the bonds of affection were breached in the events surrounding the election and consecration of a bishop for the see of New Hampshire" (italics added). In that key phrase lies the fault-line between the vision of the Communion implicit in the Pastoral Letter and that found explicitly in the minority report and the Windsor Report.

The House of Bishops appears unable to accept that bonds of affection entail constraints and that those constraints have been breached by ECUSA.

To refuse to accept this is to refuse the whole analysis the Report offers in its accounts of the nature of life in communion and its account of recent events. The language of 'interdependence' that appears in the Pastoral Letter therefore means something quite different in this context from its sense in the Windsor Report. Its sense and implications in the Windsor Report are captured in the minority Report: interdependence entails maintaining the bonds of affection by only making decisions that are "fully compatible with the interests, standards, unity and good order" of the Anglican Communion (TWR, §79, cf article 20 of proposed covenant). In that sense, again using the language of Windsor (§122), ECUSA has not just caused pain and hurt but "acted in ways incompatible with the Communion principle of interdependence". 

It is the failure to recognise and respond appropriately (ie with repentance) to that central theme of the Report that makes the Pastoral Letter's renewed affirmation of "our commitment to the interdependence of this church as a member of the Anglican Communion" so disingenuous.

As the final part of the Minority Letter makes clear, the fuller sense of interdependence is quite compatible with the "canonical authority of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church" that the Bishops appear to wish to highlight and to claim as a rationale for their failure to do more to comply with the Report. In 1991 General Convention made clear that "these potentially divisive issues should not be resolved by the Episcopal Church on its own". Furthermore, General Convention has never agreed the theological case for consecration of such candidates (despite the Presiding Bishop apparently hurriedly preparing to offer one to the Communion on behalf of ECUSA) and its last substantive statement on the expectation in sexual relationships of those in ordained ministry is fully compatible with Lambeth I.10.

In this rejection of constraint we perhaps come to the heart of ECUSA's sickness.

It is clear in relation to the substantive issue of homosexuality: the constraints laid down on sexual conduct in Scripture and upheld through Christian tradition and by the Lambeth Conference and Primates of the Anglican Communion can - indeed many seem to say, "should and must" - be breached.

It is clear in relation to the manner in which they acted at General Convention: all the Instruments of Unity appealed for restraint but they were ignored.

It is clear now in relation to the way in which they are responding to the Windsor Report: whenever it seeks to constrain ECUSA, its recommendations are ignored.

This sickness has long been evident in the sexuality debate in ECUSA and - in contrast to England and other provinces - was also displayed in the manner in which ECUSA moved towards women priests. For example - despite the emphasis placed in the letter on the polity of ECUSA and the requirement for "conciliar involvement by all the baptized of our church, lay and ordained" - both the present and the previous Presiding Bishop and many other bishops explicitly rejected the 1979 General Convention resolution concerning ordination policy and sexual relationships, arguing that "to do so would be to abrogate our responsibilities of apostolic leadership and prophetic witness to the flock of Christ, committed to our charge".

As that statement makes clear, the basis for this is a belief in "prophetic witness". The Pastoral Letter refers to learning "how the Holy Spirit is acting in our different contexts". We reach here what may prove the fundamental and decisive conflict in our current situation. There are apparently those convinced beyond any doubt that they are being led by the Spirit, that (as it has been put recently) they have experienced a 'new Pentecost', and thus they must neither accept constraints - from Scripture, tradition, or the worldwide church - nor apologise for breaching constraints and acting contrary to Christian love. There are, however, also those who have already, in the minority Report, made clear their acceptance of constraints as implicit in a commitment to interdependence and maintaining bonds of affection within the body of Christ. There are probably many bishops who though sympathetic to ECUSA's recent actions - perhaps even in the past supportive of them - are not so absolutely convinced they are right that they wish to be marginalised within the life and councils of the Anglican Communion and the wider catholic church of which it is part. They would love simply to get back to the necessary "Communion-wide study and discernment process on matters of human sexuality" that (not wholly accurately) the Pastoral Letter links to past Lambeth Conferences. The problem is that to engage in any such process now requires first walking the Windsor Report's path of reconciliation. And that path begins with repentance, including the 'fruit in keeping with repentance' that is expressed in the Report's recommendations and embraced in the minority report.

For ECUSA, the words of John the Baptist that follow his warning about not bearing fruit in keeping with repentance look increasingly relevant and pressing - "The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Mt 3.10).