As our attention turns to General Convention 2015, I am thinking of another ecclesiastical gathering 1,690 years ago, the Council of Nicaea. The story of Nicaea and its conciliar echoes raises questions about how we might best proceed in Salt Lake City this summer.
We will face divisive issues. We always face divisive issues. In my darker moments, I have thought that the real purpose of General Convention is to prove two things--God’s power and God’s love for the Church. They are proven thus: Every three years we do our utmost to kill the Church and yet she lives. This year, as always, we will face divisive issues.
I think back to Nicaea (325 C.E.), the first general council called to overcome divisions and unify the Church. For the first three centuries of Christianity, we had never felt the necessity of such a comprehensive, hegemonic uniformity, making sure we all thought and behaved in the same way. No member of the Christian Church called for the Council of Nicaea. We were summoned by the as yet unbaptized Emperor Constantine one year after he became the sole Emperor of the entire Roman Empire. He wanted a lock-step uniformity of religion to buttress the lock-step uniformity of his freshly united Empire. Before we were so fondly embraced in the death grip of the Empire, we humanly squabbled. We enjoyed more diversity and less uniformity. Historians, writing of the 2nd Century for example, refer to Christianities (like those of Antioch and Alexandria which were quite different from each other) instead of a mythically monolithic Christianity. The differences were deep and concerned indisputably fundamental matters. But we managed to muddle along until the Empire insisted that we come to an agreement.
In 2015, we will find a lot we could fight about. A contender for the most hot-button issue will be same-gender marriage[i]. To put my cards on the table, I am for same-gender marriage. I am a card-carrying member of Freedom Nevada, which advocates for marriage equality under civil law. But my opinion aside, here I want to consider how history might inform our approach to this issue at General Convention. This summer our discussion will consider two substantive aspects of same gender marriage.[ii] This first is whether to authorize a shift in the liturgy. We have already approved the blessing of same gender unions. We have already allowed bishops to tweak that rite for use in states that allow same gender marriage. The proposed change in liturgy will just make our celebration of marriages in those states more coherent. The second is whether to impose this new rule in all dioceses – that is to say requiring the same rule in such diverse diocesan situations as California and the Dominican Republic. The other option would be to allow dioceses to have different policies; for example, some parishes in Nevada have same-gender marriage while others do not.
Back to Nicaea, 325 C.E.: There were a lot of issues on their table, but only one was fundamental to the faith. It was about the relationship of the Father and the Son. The historian Edward Gibbon later observed that the whole fight turned on a single diphthong in a single word. But it was a huge deal to the way people understood the faith. They felt that the possibility of salvation depended on it. Did the Father create the Son out of nothing, so that “there was a time when he was not,” or was he co-eternal with the Father? Arius said that the Son was created. Athanasius said that he was co-eternal. The Council, under some Imperial pressure, resolved the big issue: the Father and the Son are co-eternal. Athanasius up and Arius down. But on the issues that were not so central to the faith, they left room for some diversity of practice. Even where issues were supposedly ruled upon once and for all, beliefs and practices continued to vary. The theological legacy of Nicaea is, in my view, a good thing. But the power process legacy is not. In fact, Nicaea 1 may have been the ecclesiastical Fall into the Original Sin of up-down, win-lose votes as a futile attempt to avoid the hard work of prayerful conversation while living with difference.
The first point to consider for 2015: We are not the established Church. We do not exist to buttress the uniformity of a dictatorial Empire. Our situation is far more akin to 2nd Century Syria and Egypt than to Nicaea in 325. There is less urgency to coerce agreement.
The second point: Nicaea insisted on uniformity about a matter central to the faith, the full divinity of Jesus. We do not have any such core issues of faith, anything rising to the level of Creed, on the table. We have issues on which we disagree. On some of these issues we have strong feelings -- for some of us, very strong feelings indeed. Political dramas (like the abominable Indiana legislation) and legal dramas (like the coming Supreme Court ruling on same-gender marriage) are sure to stir our passions and color our process. But our issues are not about the core of the faith embodied in the Creeds. Where the issue is not about the Creedal Core of our faith, where reasonable Christians of good faith hold differing views, might there be even more room for diversity? In the past, the Church hegemonically forbade same-gender marriage in all dioceses. That did not work well. I earnestly hope we will not go back to that. But will it work any better to compel uniformity of practice in the opposite direction?
Nicaea teaches us a further lesson if we read the rest of the story. Yes, Nicaea definitively decided the big issue. Athanasius won. Arius lost. But Athanasius was deposed and exiled several times after that. And Arianism? After it was condemned as a heresy, it just got stronger and stronger. St. Gregory of Nyssa said that 50 years later you could not buy a loaf of bread without the baker telling you that “the Son was created out of nothing and there was a time when he was not.” Not only did Arianism spread, it morphed. It became something so extreme that even Arius would not have recognized it. Let me say with a strong emphatic voice that I am with Athanasius and against Arius one hundred percent. But some commentators on contemporary religion say that many mainline Christians (that would be us, my fellow Episcopalians) are super-Arians. My point is this: Matters of faith and of the spirit do not lend themselves to formal, legalistic, parliamentary solutions. They emerge organically through relationships and conversation. Conversations do not include motions, seconds, motions to amend, motions to table, etc. Conversations do not conclude with up-down votes but rather with prayers and plans to meet again soon.
So what might all that mean for our approach to same-gender marriage at Salt Lake City in 2015? The proponents of same-gender marriage are not asking for much. It is a bit like the diphthong they were fighting over at Nicaea (only not in the Creed!). Those of us who bless same-gender unions are already using that rite in same-gender marriages where such marriages are legal. We are already tweaking the language of the Rite to acknowledge that this union is a marriage under the laws of the state. Any change in the blessing from what we are already doing will be subtle indeed. CNN and Fox News may make a to-do over it. It may leave us with some pastoral work to do back home with those who dissent. But the truth is, this isn’t a big step beyond where we have already come. My plea is that the opponents of same-gender marriage, although they dissent passionately, will live with the decision graciously.
On the other hand, the opponents of same-gender marriage, while wishing none of us were doing it, are chiefly concerned that the Church not compel them to do something contrary to their conscience. Since the days of Elizabeth I, we have in principle been committed to doing Church as a big tent that holds people with very different views in relationship. But Anglicanism, for all our claimed tolerance and inclusivity, has had a spotty record of making room for conscientious dissent. As far back as the 17th century, Archbishop Laud was said to cut the ears off of Puritans.[iii]
But our spotty record is not uniformly bad. Take for example the Non-Juriing Bishops in Scotland. The Church muddled its way along for a century while some bishops declined to swear allegiance to the monarch even in an established Church. Had those Non-Juring Bishops not been there to afford the same dispensation to Samuel Seabury, there would be no Episcopal Church in this hemisphere.
Joshua Villines, theology professor friend of mine, has a helpful perspective on the Church’s current wrangling around sexuality. Ne says, “When a married couple fight over the cap being left off the toothpaste, it isn’t really about toothpaste.” Maybe this isn’t even about sex. Prof. Villines maintains that there are other issues, other social divisions, and other churning feelings agitating the sexuality wars. So here’s my question: Is it possible to allow LGBTQ inclusion and equality to advance while we continue to hold the space for those issues to be processed pastorally and relationally in parts of the Church that have not yet come to the same point of acceptance where the majority of us now stand? Must the rule and the practice be precisely the same in rural Haiti as in urban Washington? In my experience, when people who oppose LGBTQ inclusion become friends with LGBTQ people, those relationships transform and convert the people involved. I want to protect the relational environment for such conversion, just as one might protect the Amazon rainforest.
The argument against tolerating this diversity is that members of the LGBTQ community who live in the few dissenting dioceses (I am guessing we can count the ones in the US on one hand) pay the price for it. I do not feel remotely comfortable with that and to those who raise this objection I can only say I respect their position completely and concede I may well be wrong. From the standpoint of justice and the standpoint of being right, that argument persuades me. It is offensive that in a few dioceses – a very few dioceses – same gender couples would have to go to a neighboring diocese to solemnize their vows. But the overwhelming majority of the LGBTQ community would get the benefit of the change. As for those who are not fully made whole yet, the reason they might be patient with “the law’s delay” is that it would preserve the relational environment for conversion a/k/a the Body of Christ. It would be like Paul’s plea to the Corinthians to accommodate their brothers and sisters who objected to eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul told the meat-eaters they were right but asked them to make a concession out of love. 1 Cor. 8. The LGBTQ community has been patient with the Church beyond anything we have a right to ask. But love and wisdom might move the LGBTQ community to make such a concession while we continue the process of conversation and conversion. I have seen those conversations. God as my witness, they do happen when we keep people at the table.
Allow me to look back at history just once more. Although Nicaea supposedly resolved the Arian Controversy, the same dispute was still going on at the Council of Constantinople, so we condemned Arianism again 56 years later. But that time we went on to condemn Apollinarius as well, for explaining the incarnation in a different way from Gregory of Nazianzus. Problem solved? No, we had to condemn him again 50 years later at Ephesus. But then we went on to disavow Nestorius for using different language about Jesus than Cyril of Alexandria did. Solved? No, Nestorianism went right on and had to be condemned again 122 years later. Along the way, poor old Nestorius was deposed and exiled. Without going into the intricate details of Christology, what Nestorius said about Jesus was a whole lot closer to what Cyril and the Church defined as orthodoxy than what Paul, Mark, and John said about Jesus. So if Paul, Mark, and John had been around, we would have had to chase them out too. At what point does the tent get too small to hold the fullness of the gospel?
As we struggle to answer that question in applying theology to our marriage practices, it may help to remember what holds us together. Our mission, the Catechism reminds us, is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” In Christ – not in the same opinion about marriage, sexuality, politics, or liturgy. In Christ! For those of us who love Jesus, for those of us whose lives have been saved by his mercy and who are counting on him and him alone to deliver us for eternity, the object of the game is reconciliation with each other at the altar rail in our common salvation in Jesus. It takes some patience, some forbearance, some respect in spite of disagreement, to be “reconciled in Christ” – to love one another as he has loved us.
[i] Personally, I would use the more commonly accepted term “same sex,” but the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, based on good input from others, believes “Same Gender” to be more apt.
[ii] There will also be procedural issues as to how we go about doing this Constitutionally. I don’t mean to suggest those issues are not important. I am just not a canon lawyer and do not have an opinion about them yet.
[iii] We probably did not amputate that many ears. But we did drive our some noteworthy clergy. The Clarendon Code and general exclusion of non-conformists cost us the nature mystic and aesthetic theologian Jonathan Edwards (who was actually a genius despite that awful sermon 7th graders have to read) and Roger Williams the legal scholar, theologian, and champion of Native rights and freedom of religion.