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an essay for Anglicans Online
17 August 2008

On polygamy, homosexuality, and generosity

The Rt Revd Pierre W. Whalon, D.D.
Bishop in Charge, Convocation of American Churches in Europe

The bishops gathered at the 2008 Lambeth Conference re-discovered, through the Bible study groups and Ndaba process, that we hold the same faith, and use the Bible the same way, as the Conference Lambeth Indaba document makes clear.

This formed the basis for a renewal of trust in each other and in the desire to remain in communion with all the Anglican provinces and churches. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in his concluding lecture of our retreat, pointed out that bishops are essentially leaders—but not in the usual sense that business seminars or military academies use the word. We lead, oddly enough, by following. Specifically, the bishop is to follow in the way that Jesus is opening up (cf. Hebrews 10), and lead others into that way.

The key element of episcopal leadership is therefore discernment, in order to find the way and follow Jesus. The Lambeth Conference 2008 can be said to have determined that what we are wrestling with is not a division over the faith itself. The American and Canadian churches have not wiped their feet on the Bible and blown their noses with the Creed, so to speak. The dividing issue is a question of morality. As the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, put it in one of the sessions, “Is homosexual practice adiaphorous or not?” Is it a church-dividing issue, in other words?

The heart of the dividing issue is therefore not in the realms of fundamental or systematic theology (dogma and doctrine), as has often been stated, but rather moral theology. If our disagreement were over a creedal issue, such as a province deciding explicitly to deny the virginal conception of Jesus, there would have to be an unequivocal action by this Conference and the other Instruments to declare that they are not in communion with this province. The faith is that which must be believed by all, everywhere, at all times (the so-called Vincentian canon).

However, moral reasoning rarely has such universal norms. Other than the commandments of to love God and neighbor, and the New Commandment of Jesus, moral reasoning is by nature contextual. Even those of the Ten Commandments that have to do with moral conduct have to have some relation to a specific case in order to be understood and applied. For instance, does “You shall do no murder” make self-defense a sin? If you steal food in order to survive, have you violated the commandment against stealing? If you lie to the Gestapo about the Jewish family hiding in your attic, is that bearing false witness?

On the other hand, “you shall have no other gods before me” is always applicable, everywhere, all the time.

This explains why the Church has changed its moral teaching from time to time. Slavery used to be considered moral. Lending with interest was thought for a long time to be immoral, etc. These former teachings were amply supported by certain biblical texts. They were changed by new readings of the Bible, which then have been commonly accepted. These fresh readings were informed by reasoning about the Scriptures from the creedal doctrines about what it means to be human in the light of the Incarnation. Moral teaching for humans, in order to be sound, must rest upon solid teaching about God and God’s mission through Christ in the Spirit. While reflection on these mysteries of the faith will continue until the Parousia, with fresh insights into the “faith once delivered to the saints,” there is a large accepted body of doctrine that can no longer be repudiated. Based on this foundation, “Christ Jesus being the chief cornerstone,” the development of better and more faithful moral reasoning can go forward.

There are examples of exceptions to the Church’s moral teaching made for pastoral reasons. The African adaptation of the teaching on marriage so as to be able to incorporate polygamists and their wives is a good example. This exception also allows African Anglicans to teach the classic doctrine that marriage is for one man, one woman. One could object that allowing polygamists into the church—at whatever level—is de facto an approval of adultery. That in fact was the initial objection, and on the face of it, polygamy (or polyandry, or its contemporary expression in the West, polyamory), is adulterous in nature. However, the overriding concerns of justice for the wives and children, and mercy for the polygamist, allow the exception to be made. From the biblical perspective, some evidence is found to allow polygamy, as the Mormons will tell you, even though the prophets and the church of the New Testament did not accept it. This ambiguity also gives the exception some sort of biblical backing.

On this basis an exception can be made, and it is clear that Anglicans everywhere now accept it. That the Lambeth Conference came into being to advise on the case of Bishop Colenso, deposed for, among other things, advocating this exception, is proof that this process of approval is by no means automatic or rapid.

However, while a province may make such exceptions, there are limits. Polygamists are not allowed to add more wives, for instance. In particular, when one makes a pastoral exception for a certain group of people, ordaining them to the ministry, and especially the episcopate, is unacceptable. It must be pointed out, however, that the first consecrations of bishops of color were justified as pastoral exceptions made for the sake of mission—while sinfully continuing to deny the equality of those first bishops with others, since they were themselves part of an “inferior race.”

The churches that are dealing with the open presence of gay people in their midst are developing strategies to reach out to them. This Conference recognized that this development in these churches is not the fruit of doctrinal drift or abandonment of the faith. They are trying to create ways of incorporating gay people as part of their mission. As the Lambeth Indaba document states (para. 22), the church exists as the instrument of God’s mission—God is doing the sending, and the church is the extension into humanity of that mission. Furthermore, successive Lambeth Conferences have affirmed for thirty years that gay people are worthy to be received into the church, equally beloved with the rest of us by God.

As those churches trying to accomplish this mission in their context wrestle with the appropriate missional approach to and with gay people, they are trying to discern whether a pastoral exception is called for, as with polygamy, or whether in fact homosexuality can be fully accepted as part of living a holy Christian life for those who are so oriented. As Bishop Gene Robinson has pointed out a number of times, there is still significant indecision in the American context itself.

But I think Bishop Wright put the question squarely: can homosexual practice be validated as an acceptable way of life for those whose sexuality orients them toward it? The answer will clearly outline the shape of evangelism and mission to gays and lesbians, as well as pastoral and ascetical practice with gay people.

Furthermore, while the case of polygamy is instructive from a methodological point of view, there is a difference in essence between polygamy and homosexuality. Comparing the two is, as they say in England, chalk and cheese. The one is clearly a cultural practice in specific lands. The other is a universal phenomenon, albeit with significant variations of practice from culture to culture and society to society. The African bishops continually stated this fundamental difference, often very passionately, and they were right. However, they frequently weakened their case, in fact, by calling for a pastoral exception for gay people similar to polygamists, so that they can be welcomed into the Church but never be allowed to be ordained.

Of course, this is no obscure theological dispute, counting angels dancing on pinheads. The painful dilemma is that elsewhere in the Communion, the more this process develops toward full acceptance in the West, the more the acceptance of homosexuality becomes a weapon used against those churches living with proselytizing Muslims.  Moreover, in the European Union and other parts of the First World, gay people are more and more being accepted as full members of society, endued with equal rights, including access to civil marriage or partnerships. This is still not the case in the United States, though full acceptance is growing, which is one reason our own church’s debate is so heated. The EU, for instance, no longer allows rank social injustice toward gays, as prevails in other parts of the world, where homosexuality is still often criminalized. In Europe, as in Canada or the United Kingdom, the social justice issue has been settled not by moral theology but by secular law, leaving the theological question for Christians to wrestle over. The urgency for these Christians is that anti-discrimination laws may no longer allow them to deny ordination to gays and lesbians. These laws require, for instance, that Church of England clergy cannot be denied the opportunity to make a same-sex civil partnership. This has led, oddly, to the requirement that those clergy wishing to enter such a union must vow to their bishop that the relationship is not sexual.

Adding to this mass confusion is instant communications. The ubiquity of the Internet and other media means that every small development in one part of the world is instantly transmitted around the world. Often this transmission is made with an accompanying “spin” to buttress this or that ideology in political struggles of both church and state, further complicating the task of mutual understanding. A perfect example is the ocean of digital ink and video engendered by the Lambeth Conference.

Thus the work of the Communion in addressing this missional question is made much more difficult, because, among other things, the global community has become a village in cyberspace, yet this village is made up of billions of people with thousands of languages and cultural filters. We regularly misunderstand one another in very basic ways. For example, American bishops attending the Lambeth Conference soon discovered, if they did not already know, the truth of the old saw that England and America are two nations divided by a common language. How much greater the opportunity for misunderstanding between people from cultures much more different than England and the U.S…

It is not surprising, therefore, that cross-boundary violations have been justified in the name of some sort of orthodoxy of belief. However, at Lambeth it became clear that the theological issue is not located in dogmatic or systematic theology—matters of faith—but moral reasoning. In our discussions, it also became clear that these interventions in the U.S, and Canada, often in dioceses of conservative bishops, have been driven by issues of political power and status, both ecclesial and secular, as well as money, rather than creedal matters calling for fraternal support of beleaguered faithful. A Rwandan bishop, for instance, began the incursions in 1998, four years after the genocide and five years before the General Convention of 2003. “Rescuing” Americans seems to provide a happy distraction from the lingering wounds of the collaboration of Rwandan Christians, including some Anglicans, in that horrific event. That pattern of distraction from pressing problems has been repeated elsewhere.

What to do? The Archbishop of Canterbury has called for a “mutual generous response” to enable us to continue. The bishops’ experience of this Lambeth Conference has begun to rebuild our basis trust in one another, and sharpened very much our regret that many other bishops felt unable to attend. What is needed is space for those churches dealing with proselytizing Muslims to be able to continue their mission with confidence, and space for the churches working out their missional approach to homosexuality to do so in some tranquility. That will require the whole of the Communion to work out, not just those provinces represented at Lambeth.

The Windsor and Covenant approaches have come into being to “mend the tear in the fabric of the Communion.” The Conference has shown that the “tear” in our mutual trust, at least, if not the “fabric,” has been significantly repaired. These processes have tried to bring back together the provinces through proposing structures of reconciliation. The Conference affirmed the full participation to date of The Episcopal Church in these processes.

But these processes are not in themselves capable of helping all of us to move forward in mission. Our faith requires us to seek out the way that Jesus has opened for us to walk in. That way is most certainly not schism, which is the dividing of Jesus’ Body. Schism has never resolved conflict before. Instead, it enshrines the conflict by giving way to the temptation of short-term relief from the conflict. But inevitably, the conflict re-surfaces, and the world is once again treated to the spectacle of Christian enmity toward one another, but almost always on a larger scale.

What we need therefore is a multi-pronged approach. First, there needs to be moral theological reflection in the West, in particular The Episcopal Church, that rests not upon biology or psychiatry to justify the full acceptance of gays and lesbians, but rather deeper insights into the Scriptures and the Tradition as primary supports to make the case. Some will say that is impossible. Others will claim that this or that theologian has already accomplished it. These need to be tested in a public, transparent way.

Second, these churches dealing with Muslim proselytism and the concomitant rejection by ecumenical partners must decide what they really need, in order to have some space to deal with these. The resignation of Bishop Robinson, recently requested by the Archbishop of Sudan, would change nothing.

Finally, we all need patience. 64 years after the ordination of the first woman to the priesthood, Florence Tim-Oi Lee, much of the Communion still does not ordain women. Yet it is not “tearing the fabric” of the Communion as a whole. Neither does re-marriage after divorce, though many provinces still do not allow that. As Archbishop Williams pointed out in his final address, we cannot live faithfully without one another: “The global horizon of the Church matters because churches without this are always in danger of slowly surrendering to the culture around them and losing sight of their calling to challenge that culture.”[1]

Challenging culture in San Francisco is radically different than challenging culture in Dar es-Salaam, or Tokyo, or the Solomon Islands. We need to know one another well enough to be able to translate our local mission efforts into terms that other Anglicans can understand. For the mission of God remains the same, everywhere, and the church remains God’s instrument in humanity for that mission. Therefore, ultimately, we must wait upon the Spirit to enlighten all our minds to discern together—not just bishops—the way forward that leads to human flourishing and divine glory.

One perennial clue: that way will always lead us again to the Cross.

[1] Accessed on 6 August 2008 at

Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at