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Lambeth Call: Human Dignity - Words that Have Changed, Words that Have Stayed the Same

Sometimes small words, words that barely register as we hurry past them to get to the important ones, hide profound realities. Sometimes words that are missing, particularly those that almost seem to be there, also conceal deep truths.

The Anglican Communion is nothing if not a source of entertainment for the conspiratorially minded. And over the past couple of days, Lambeth Call: Human Dignity has caused online outrage and speculation not once but twice. At first, affirmation (2.3) said that the ‘Mind of the Communion’ is expressed in the teaching of Lambeth Resolution 1.10 that ‘“legitimizing or blessing of same sex union” cannot be advised. It is the mind of the Communion to uphold “faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union”’. At this expression of the mind of the Communion, various representatives of different parts of the Communion lost their minds, and the Communion, apparently, changed its mind. A revised version was circulated, in which it remained the mind of the Communion that ‘all baptized, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation are full members of the Body of Christ’ and to be welcomed, cared for, and treated with respect. But opposition to same sex marriage (not, note ‘unions’; is this change significant?) was downgraded to an ongoing affirmation of ‘many Provinces’. After all, ‘Other Provinces have blessed and welcomed same sex union/marriage after careful theological reflection and a process of reception’. The Bishops are now being asked to affirm their commitment to ‘listening and walking together to the maximum possible degree, despite our deep disagreement on these issues’.

Much could be said about these changes. But in this post I would like to consider a word in 2.3 that has remained the same, and some words that never really made it into the Call, despite lying somewhere near the heart of Christian concerns over human dignity.

I. A Word That Has Not Changed

In paragraph 2.3, the cause of ongoing divisions is located: ‘Given Anglican polity, and especially the autonomy of Provinces, there is disagreement and a plurality of views on the relationship between human dignity and human sexuality.’ The wording is the same in both drafts. And at first blush, it simply seems to record reality. The Provinces of the Communion do indeed have autonomy (if we disregard for now the rather closer relationship of Canterbury and York). And as a result of this autonomy, it has apparently proved impossible to prevent individual Provinces ignoring the mind of the Communion, at least as it found expression between 1998 and the day before yesterday. But it is that little word ‘Given’ that I would like us to notice and give its due attention.

Given Anglican polity…there is disagreement and a plurality of views.’ The way this sentence is framed leads us to believe that the current disagreement (read: deep and painful conflict) and plurality is inevitable. It is a given of Anglican polity. Presumably this means it is, in principle, unresolvable. Or if not unresolvable, then at least something our very polity and identity as Anglicans requires us to live with until it is resolved.

But why does Anglican polity (inevitably?) give rise to such deep disagreement and conflicting plurality of views (and, we might add, practices)? The answer given is Provincial autonomy. Behind this appears to be the assumption that such disagreements will arise naturally, given the vast cultural differences between different Provinces, particularly, one assumes, those in the West and those in the Global South. Unlike the Church of Rome, with its magisterium, we are asked to accept that Anglican polity has no authoritative means of adjudicating these conflicts. Pluralism of belief and practice is simply a given of our decentralised polity, because different beliefs and practices inevitably arise in our very different cultural settings.

What this conceals is both the true source of our disagreement, and the authority by which such disputes could, indeed should, be adjudicated.

First, we must grasp that the source of our disagreements is not inescapable cultural differences running on an operating system of Provincial autonomy. To be sure, there are many, legitimate cultural differences between our Provinces. But on the presenting issues of human sexuality, this is not the root of our discord. The root issue is not cultural diversity, or Provincial autonomy, but sin. The root problem is sinful defiance of the clear Word of God. A more honest sentence would therefore read, ‘Given the sinful rebellion against God of certain Provinces, the Communion is divided.’

Plurality of viewpoints regarding human sexuality cannot, at this stage in the Communion’s fractured life, be treated as the result of a symmetrical divergence of opinion and lack of an institutional magisterium. No. It is the result of the stubborn sin of certain Provinces, and the refusal of other Provinces to collude with such unrepentant sin.

But, secondly, we must consider the authority by which such disputes should be adjudicated. Rome does indeed have a magisterium. This might seem to have its advantages (until one realises quite how internally divided the Roman Church is). But in any case, the Anglican Communion has a far better, more powerful, and more authoritative means of adjudicating its disagreements. Not an institution, not the infamous instruments of Communion, but something better: the Word of God. By fidelity to the Scriptures, the visible Church is defined, according to Article XIX. And by the same Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, the only head of the Church rules his people (cf. Eph 4:11ff). Again, a more honest sentence would therefore read, ‘Given the stubborn refusal of some Provinces to submit their teaching and actions to the God who speaks in Scripture, the Communion is divided’.

If the Anglican Communion is resigned to institutional pluralism on matters on which Scripture speaks clearly and consistently, it has, to all intents and purposes, ceased to be a visible church of Christ in the authoritative Anglican (we might add, biblical) sense of the term. And if Lambeth 2022 finds it impossible to acknowledge this, it is hard to know what future Lambeth Conferences, or indeed the Anglican Communion, can have.

II. Some Words That Don’t Appear

But as well as words that stay the same in both drafts, there are other words that barely appear at all. And this, again, takes us back to the doctrine of sin and its importance for human dignity.

The Call is rightly concerned to emphasise the cruel and devastating damage that humans, including Christians, have done to other humans. It rightly condemns racism, colonialism, exploitation of various kinds, oppression of LGBTQ persons, gender-based violence, war and sexual violence in conflict, and various other gross and tragic sins.

What it misses, however, and what lies at the heart of the Communion’s divisions over sexuality, is that human dignity is not only assaulted by our sins against each other. The Call is correct when it states that ‘acts and attitudes against the dignity of God’s children are sin’. But what is misses is more fundamental: sin (your sin, my sin) is an assault against our own dignity as God’s creatures.

To be a creature is to have a distinct nature, given to us by God. There is a givenness about what it means to be human, in two senses.

First, our life, and the ideal shape of our life, has been given to us by a wise and loving Creator: it is a gift, to be received with thanksgiving. Indeed, part of the essence of sin is a refusal to give thanks to God (Rom 1:21). But, secondly, the shape, or form, of that life is also a given: it is fixed by God’s design. There is a grain to the universe, a grain to human nature, that can only find its fulfilment when life is lived in accordance with reality as God has made it. Our creation in the image of God, as male and female, ordered towards him as our final and highest end, ordered towards one another’s good in just societies, oriented sexually towards one another—male to female, female to male—for loving union and the procreation of children, is simply the warp and woof of our given nature.

To defy and deny this nature and its given shape, is to reject our God-given humanity, and so to dehumanise ourselves. We do this in many ways, not just sexually. But sexual lawlessness is part of our tragedy. And like any sin, it degrades us. Because we sin, we fall short of our true glory (Rom 3:23; contrast Ps 8:5). Lacking the weight of our God-given glory, our lives become light and fragile, like chaff that the wind drives away (Ps 1:4). Rather than flourishing and bearing fruit (Ps 1:3), we shrivel and crackle and disintegrate. Instead of attaining the glory of the image of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:22-24), we debase ourselves and descend to the level of the beasts (Ps 73:21-22).

Far more than it degrades others, our sin degrades us. My sin degrades me. In the words of a late, and very great Anglican theologian, sadly neglected by the Anglican Communion, ‘We corrode our own dignity. Others may fail to recognize our dignity, but only we ourselves can sever the fellowship with God in which alone our dignity can flourish. No other person—only I myself—can repudiate my creaturely calling.’[1]

This is the missing foundation in Lambeth Call: Human Dignity. It is alluded to: ‘All human beings turn away from God’s love and mar God’s image. We sin. Respecting, honouring, and preserving the dignity of each human being involves acknowledgment of sin, repentance, and forgiveness.’ But insofar as my sin, first and foremost erodes my own dignity, this statement does no real work in the rest of the Call.

And yet this is foundational to what it means to value and uphold human dignity—my own, but also, crucially, the dignity of others. Who is it that corrodes and denies the dignity of others? Centrally, it is those who leave them in their sin, unwarned, untaught, without prayer and exhortation and pleas for repentance. There are Provinces, and Bishops, and priests, and theologians in the Anglican communion who damage the human dignity of those enmeshed in same-sex sexual sins (and many other forms of sexual sin also). But it is not those who uphold ‘faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union’ and refuse to authorise same sex unions. Rather, the Provinces who damage and degrade are those whose Canons, liturgies, bishops, priests and teachers ‘have blessed and welcomed same sex union/marriage’, no matter how ‘careful’ they believe their theological reflection and processes of reception to have been.

Given this - given the Scriptural realities of creation and sin, and the clarity and truthfulness of Scripture - without deep repentance, and fruit in keeping with it, painful division and separation is inevitable. This is the case whatever the final wording of the Lambeth Call, and whoever finds most cause to take offence. For light can have no fellowship with darkness. Those who walk in the light - confessing their sins and being purified by Christ’s blood - cannot walk with those who walk, and teach others to walk, in darkness. For God is Light - eloquent, radiant, clearly communicating his truth; holy, pure, tolerating no sin - and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5-7).

[1] John Webster, ‘The Dignity of Creatures’, in God Without Measure: Working Papers in Christian Theology, Vol. 1, p. 39.

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