The Church of England Newspaper(Feb. 24) reports on Archbishop Rowan Williams as responding to the news of the release of the list of nominees for Bishop of California as follows:
Dr Williams stressed his opposition to the move. “If there is ever to be a change on the discipline and teaching of the Anglican Communion [on homosexuality] it should not be the decision of one Church alone. “The Church must have the highest degree of consensus for such a radical change,” he argued, adding he was very uneasy about the way in which change has gone forward in the American Church over this issue.The newspaper doesn’t indicate the source of these quotations, presented as I show them with that odd floating quotation mark. Were these from a letter, an off-cuff comment, or what? [FLASH: see first comment below; these quotations came from comments made in Porto Alegre on February 17th, three days before the California nominations were released.]
Whatever the format or forum, I continue to be confused by Archbishop Williams’ asssertions concerning consensus and change.
As I have noted before, this is not the way intellectual, social, or religious change actually works in the real world. Things happen locally, and then gain acceptance (or not) more broadly. They don't “become true” when a certain critical mass of agreement is reached. Truth (or rightness, or any other reality) is not established by majority rule, nor rendered false because held by a minority.
It strikes me that Williams’ approach to the process of truth-determination in ecclesiastical polity is similar to Receptionism in sacramental theology (the elements “become” the Body and Blood based on the positive reception by the communicant) or Adoptionism in Christology (that Jesus “became” the Son of God at some point, such as his baptism, crucifixion, or even resurrection). Just as truth (or moral truth) is not contingent upon who receives it, so too the eucharist is the real presence of Christ, and Jesus is the Christ even as an infant at his mother’s breast.
From a practical perspective, this “none can act until all agree” approach would have meant the death of the church before it was born. Had the apostles heeded the Council’s warning, and stopped proclaiming Christ, and had not Gamaliel intervened and argued for restraint and tolerance for this minority opinion, we wouldn’t be here today. Had the Church of England not taken its unilateral step against Roman hegemony, we might be here, but we wouldn’t be Anglicans.
At the present time, it can be said with certainty that there is no longer a consensus on the question of the ordination of persons living in same-sex relationships. There may be a large majority who oppose it, but there is no longer a consensus.
Nor is there a consensus on how best to achieve consensus: I argue for the process of tolerance and reception, which seems to be the way the church accepts changes over time. Williams appears to think it will somehow happen in a vacuum or a flash.
The scandal of God’s truth is that the Word was made flesh in the person of a Jewish carpenter, at a certain place and in a certain time. He came to his own people, but they rejected him. But among them, and elsewhere, were those who accepted him, and they became the children of God — not born of the flesh or by the will of man, but of God. This is how the Truth of God marches — step by step. May the church keep pace....
— Tobias S Haller BSG