Tuesday, February 20, 2007
A Season of Fasting
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori offered the following reflections following the February 15-19 meeting of Anglican Primates near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
A Season of Fasting: Reflections on the Primates Meeting
The recent meeting of the Primates in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was a challenging one. Fourteen new primates joined the group; three longer-serving primates were unable to be present. It was a great joy to meet and begin to know a number of the primates, and to renew friendships with others. While much of our time and energy was focused on the Episcopal Church, several other agenda items were of considerable interest to many of those who gathered.
The Design Group for an Anglican Covenant submitted an initial draft for consideration by the Primates' Meeting, which in turn commended it to the Communion for consideration, debate, and revision before the Lambeth Conference next year. This covenant is a further step in the Windsor process, engaged in the understanding that all human communities need boundaries in order to function. Anglicanism has always valued a rather wide set of boundaries, and boundaries are a central issue in the current debate - where are they, and how wide a space can they contain? The Covenant in its current draft attempts to define what the essentials and non-negotiable elements of Anglicanism might be, and how the Communion might live together in diversity.
The new United Nations observer, Hellen Wangusa, was installed during our meeting, and also led a discussion on the Millennium Development Goals. The Goals are directed primarily toward the governments of this world, both those in the developing world, who will have to design the systems to implement the goals, and the governments of the developed world, which are asked to contribute 0.7% of their annual incomes. She challenged us to recognize that these goals only go part way toward achieving full healing in the world, and that our own vision is of a world entirely reconciled and healed in God.
We also heard about the work being done on Theological Education in the Anglican Communion (TEAC). This body has produced thoughtful and creative, outcome-based guidelines for theological education of our baptized and ordained members.
The highlight of our meeting was the visit to Zanzibar and the remembrance of the end of the slave trade. We worshiped at the Anglican Cathedral in Zanzibar, built over the old slave market. Slavery was outlawed in British Empire in 1807, but it took another 90 years for the trade in Zanzibar to finally come to an end. Anglicans were a profound influence all through that period, and the Sultan of Zanzibar only signed the final treaty when faced with British warships in the harbor. David Livingstone is commemorated here for his tireless efforts to put an end to the ancient and inhuman practice of slavery. The struggle to end slavery has some parallel with our current controversy, and we can note the less than universal agreement about the moral duty of Christians over a lengthy period. The United States also experienced major division over slavery, even though the Episcopal Church did not fully divide. Some see that part of our history as shameful, while others see it as a sign of hope, and that, too, has current parallels.
We traveled home from this meeting at Carnival, the farewell to meat (carne vale) that comes just before Lent begins. That is an image that may be useful as we consider what the Primates' gathering is commending to the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church has been asked to consider the wider body of the Anglican Communion and its needs. Our own Church has in recent years tended to focus on the suffering of one portion of the body, particularly those who feel that justice demands the full recognition and celebration of the gifts of gay and lesbian Christians. That focus has been seen in some other parts of the global Church, as inappropriate, especially as it has been felt to be a dismissal of traditional understandings of sexual morality. Both parties hold positions that can be defended by appeal to our Anglican sources of authority - scripture, tradition, and reason - but each finds it very difficult to understand and embrace the other. What is being asked of both parties is a season of fasting - from authorizing rites for blessing same-sex unions and consecrating bishops in such unions on the one hand, and from transgressing traditional diocesan boundaries on the other.
A parallel to this situation in our tradition might be seen in the controversy over eating meat in early Christian communities, mentioned both in the letter to the Romans and the first letter to the Corinthians. In those early communities, the meat available for purchase in the public market was often part of an animal that had been offered (in whole or in part) in sacrifice in various pagan religious rites. The troubling question in the Christian community was whether or not it was appropriate to eat such meat - was it tainted by its involvement in pagan religion? Did one participate in that religion (and thus commit apostasy) by eating it? Paul encourages the Christians in Rome and Corinth to recall that, while there may be no specific prohibition about eating such meat, the sensitive in the community might refrain if others would be offended. The needs of the weaker members, and the real possibility that their faith may be injured, are an important consideration in making the dietary decision.
The current controversy brings a desire for justice on the one hand into apparent conflict with a desire for fidelity to a strict understanding of the biblical tradition and to the main stream of the ethical tradition. Either party may be understood to be the meat-eaters, and each is reminded that their single-minded desire may be an idol. Either party might constructively also be understood by the other as the weaker member, whose sensibilities need to be considered and respected.
God's justice is always tempered with mercy, and God continues to be at work in this world, urging the faithful into deeper understandings of what it means to be human and our call as Christians to live as followers of Jesus. Each party in this conflict is asked to consider the good faith of the other, to consider that the weakness or sensitivity of the other is of significant import, and therefore to fast, or "refrain from eating meat," for a season. Each is asked to discipline itself for the sake of the greater whole, and the mission that is only possible when the community maintains its integrity.
Justice, (steadfast) love, and mercy always go together in our biblical tradition. None is complete without the others. While those who seek full inclusion for gay and lesbian Christians, and the equal valuing of their gifts for ministry, do so out of an undeniable passion for justice, others seek a fidelity to the tradition that cannot understand or countenance the violation of what that tradition says about sexual ethics. Each is being asked to forbear for a season. The word of hope is that in God all things are possible, and that fasting is not a permanent condition of a Christian people, nor a normative one. God's dream is of all people gathered at a feast, and we enter Lent looking toward that Easter feast and the new life that will, in God's good time, be proclaimed.
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