To listen to some folks these days, one would think that consensus was the cornerstone of Anglican identity. On the contrary, in the past the genius of Anglicanism has been the ability to stay together in the same church even with serious disagreements on core matters of faith. The classical Anglican settlement emerged, after all, in response to strong theological differences about the Eucharist itself, as the Book of Common Prayer managed to give each side room to stand by acknowledging both views.
This kind of comprehension (as opposed to compromise) is at the heart of our traditional approach to disagreement. Fifty years ago, when bitter debate took place over revising the rules on divorce and remarriage, the elegant solution was local option: bishops were given power, diocese by diocese, to recognize the end to one marriage and allow another, following any guidelines each chose to go by. As an added safeguard, each priest was given the canonical right to say “no” to any request for marriage that could cause a crisis of conscience. This settlement is still on the books.
Can’t we discover the same sort of comprehension in our present disagreements — both within the Episcopal Church and the wider communion? If we can be flexible about the Eucharist and matrimony, why not about same-sex relationships and ordination? Can we not find some way to enact canonical protection for the sake of conscience — on both sides — even if it means a patchwork of episcopal oversight and a novel polity based on affinity instead of geography? The question should not be, “How do we split?” — but, “How do we stay together?” — for better, for worse.
I raise that matrimonial language with due seriousness. Whenever dissension threatens a relationship, there is a temptation to take the easy way out and end it. One of my criticisms of the covenant proposed in the Windsor Report is that it reads too much like a prenuptial agreement, with its implied threats of disfellowship for those who rock the boat.
What if we removed ecclesiastical divorce from the table, even as an option? What if we were to agree on one thing: that we have to stay together even if we disagree about other things? What kind of accommodations might we work out?
I’ve heard of plenty of marriages on the rocks, where the couple decides to stay together for the sake of the children. They may discover, even with separate bedrooms and vacations, that after the children grow up and leave home, they have more in common than they thought they did in the time of tension. Can we agree to stay together for the mission of the church, even if we have to juggle with its polity to do so?
Rodney King asked, “Can’t we all get along?” and the same question is facing the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. I pose this question in light of what I see as the church’s mission, the church’s mandate to show the world what it is by what it does.
If the church cannot get along in spite of differences of opinion, how can we witness to a world that does no better? If we cannot even coexist with each other — let alone embody the exemplary love that Christ said would be the hallmark of our identity — of what use are we to the world or to ourselves?