Conversation partners ‘agree to disagree’ on human sexuality

By Jan Nunley

Those hoping for a final word — pro or con — on the Anglican view of homosexual behavior from the three-year-long International Anglican Conversations on Human Sexuality are going to have to wait. The final report, issued this month, indicates strengthened relationships between the participants, but no consensus on the morality of homosexuality.

“It will no doubt disappoint the vast majority of Anglicans who believe the practise of homosexuality to be inherently wrong,” commented Archbishop of Canterbury George L. Carey in a commendation appended to the report. “It will no doubt disappoint homosexuals in the Communion who continue to feel marginalised, misunderstood and maligned, and those who with them argue for a change of belief and of policy,” he wrote.

“However, the Working Party was not set up with the intention necessarily of resolving the disagreements among us; but to deepen the dialogue and to find ways of bringing theology, experience and pastoral care together,” Carey said.

Moving the Communion forward

The international conversation was convened in 1999, following the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops, to “help move the whole Communion forward from the Lambeth resolution” on human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold was asked to chair the group of 12 bishops and primates, which made four-day retreats annually over the next three years.

“Honoring one another by refusing to impute ill motives and by valuing the opinions of those with whom we disagreed, we became a kind of laboratory in which to grapple with our topic,” Griswold wrote in a foreword to the final report. “The ensuing conversations were challenging, moving, and always honest, direct and conducted with charity and mutual respect.”

The consultation included Bishops Simon Chiwanga of Mpwapwa; Terence Finlay of Toronto; Roger Herft of Newcastle; Josiah Idowu-Fearon of Kaduna; Chilton Knudsen of Maine; John Lipscomb of Southwest Florida; and Michael Scott-Joynt of Winchester. Primates in the group included Griswold of ECUSA; Peter Kwong, archbishop of Hong Kong; Glauco Soares de Lima, Primate of Brazil; Peter Watson, archbishop of Melbourne; and Rowan Williams, archbishop of Wales.

Face-to-face conversations 

“We do not underestimate the gravity for the Communion of the challenge on the part of some to change our traditional teaching regarding human sexuality,” the final report stated. “During our conversations we have noted the fear of some within our Communion that any departure from the received teaching might in time become mandatory, and therefore compromise the conscience of many.”

But the report also noted the shortcomings of present methods of dealing with the controversy, such as the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution on sexuality. “As we have reflected on the Lambeth Conference of 1998 we have come to believe that the ‘legislative’ process is often an inadequate way to discern the mind of Christ in some of the sensitive issues that face us as we continue to grow as a Communion of churches,” the report stated.

The report stressed the importance of “face-to-face conversation across provincial lines” rather than relying on information culled from such sources as e-mail lists and Web sites. “We regret that we have often participated in and responded to half-truths about others. .. Our experience has reaffirmed our conviction regarding the importance of face-to-face communication. No amount of e-mail can take the place of it,” the report said.

Behavior, not people

According to the report, over three years the participants came to agree that the Bible was “foundational” to their work. They concurred that “homosexual behavior, not ? homosexual people,” is at issue, that homosexuality is “a much more varied phenomenon” than usually assumed and that scientific research about its origins does not relieve Christians of “the responsibility of making theological and ethical judgments” about homosexuality. They acknowledged that failures to strengthen heterosexual marriage “weaken our ability to speak with credibility” to homosexuals, and affirmed that other expressions of sexuality “beginning with promiscuity and every kind of abusive sexual behavior” are “plainly contrary to the Christian way.”

Still, they said, continued controversy over homosexuality is “a burden and a distraction” from other high priority issues for the Anglican Communion. “For it to be further divided by the issue of homosexual behavior would be the ultimate sexualization of the Church, making sexuality more powerful, or more claiming of our attention, than God,” the report said. In addition, because “the role and authority of the bishop and understandings of collegiality differ from province to province there is an increased potential for misunderstandings” about the ability of primates and bishops to respond to differing understandings of homosexuality within and between provinces.

The group “agreed to disagree” on other points. They “were not able to reach a common mind regarding a single pattern of holy living” for homosexuals, nor to concur on the relative authority of the Bible, tradition, reason and experience for decisions regarding homosexuality.

Interpretive charity

On a positive note, the group reported that “relationships between us have been strengthened and deepened” and the conversations “strengthened and clarified our differing convictions, not diluted them.” Most helpful to that process was a series of prior “covenants” governing the conversation process, including the principle of “interpretive charity,” and the “grounding” of the meetings in worship and Bible study.

Further exploration is needed, the report said, in several areas, including the question of whether Christian holiness excludes or includes homosexual behavior within committed relationships, and of what constitutes “loving and responsible pastoral care” of homosexuals.

The group recommended “ongoing structured conversations” regarding sexuality in each province, and group visitations of bishops between provinces. They requested that those proposing “changes to the Church’s traditional teaching” on sexuality or other issues “take account of both ecumenical and inter-faith implications, and the impact upon other Provinces of our Communion.”

The Rev. Jan Nunley is deputy director of Episcopal News Service.



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