Interview with Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, England May 21, 2004
By John L. Allen, Jr. Rome
Anglican Bishop N.T. (Tom) Wright of Durham, England, is one of the world’s leading scholars on the New Testament, and especially on the letters of Paul. He is also a member of the Eames Commission currently pondering the crisis within Anglicanism caused by the consecration of an openly gay bishop in the United States.
NCR interviewed Wright May 21 on the Anglican crisis, as well as on the resources the New Testament might offer to the debate in the United States over denying communion to Catholic politicians who disagree with church teaching. Wright was in Rome for a series of lectures at the Lay Centre.
NCR: There are two inter-related questions concerning the current crisis within Anglicanism. The first is a moral analysis of homosexuality, the second how one understands ecclesial communion. Let’s start with the first point. One locus for the debate over homosexuality is Romans 1:26-28. How do you understand what Paul is saying? Wright: I’ve written quite extensively about Romans in various places, particularly my commentary in the New Interpreter’s Bible, and anything that I say should be filled in with what’s there. The main thing to realize about Romans 1:26 and following is that it isn’t just a side swipe out of the blue. Paul’s argument at that point is grounded in the narrative of Genesis 1, 2 and 3. As often, he’s referring to it obliquely, but it’s there under the text. He’s drawing on it at various stages. He sees the point about being human as being to reflect God’s image, which he says in a number of places in his writings. He clearly sees that in Genesis 1 it is male plus female who are made in the image of God. He chooses the practice of homosexuality, not as a random feature of “look, they do all sorts of wicked things.” His point is that when people in a society are part of an idolatrous system — not necessarily that they individually are specifically committing acts of idolatry, but when the society as a whole worships that which is not the true God — then its image-bearingness begins to deconstruct. An obvious sign of that for Paul, granted Genesis 1, is the breakup of male-female relations and the turning off in other directions. Then it’s important to see how that is stitched into the argument that he mounts later on in the letter about how humankind is restored. When in chapter four he talks about Abraham, he talks about Abraham specifically did the things which in chapter one that human beings did not. In chapter one, they refused to know God, to honor God as God, to acknowledge God’s power and deity, and all the rest of it. This is the end of Romans 4. The result of Abraham acknowledging God and God’s power, recognizing that God had the power to do what he promised and giving God glory, which is the exact opposite word-by-word of what he said in chapter one, is that Abraham and Sarah were able to conceive children even in their old age. It’s a specific reversal, the coming back together of male plus female, and then the being fruitful, which is the command of Genesis 1: “Be fruitful and multiply.” This is why he can talk in Romans 5 of how in Christ, who has fulfilled the promises to Abraham, what God wanted to do through Adam has been put back on the rails.
Can you draw a straight line between what Paul understood by “homosexuality” and how we understand it? Not a straight line, because there is no one understanding today of what constitutes homosexuality. There are many different analyses. As a classicist, I have to say that when I read Plato’s Symposium, or when I read the accounts from the early Roman empire of the practice of homosexuality, then it seems to me they knew just as much about it as we do. In particular, a point which is often missed, they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention, it’s already there in Plato. The idea that in Paul’s today it was always a matter of exploitation of younger men by older men or whatever … of course there was plenty of that then, as there is today, but it was by no means the only thing. They knew about the whole range of options there. Indeed, in the modern world that isn’t an invention of the 20th century either. If you read the recent literature, for example Graham Robb’s book Strangers, which is an account of homosexual love in the 19th century, it offers an interesting account of all kinds of different expressions and awarenesses and phenomena. I think we have been conned by Michel Foucault into thinking that this is all a new phenomena.
So the attempt to get around Paul’s language on homosexuality by suggesting that its cultural referent was different than ours doesn’t work? At any point in Paul, whether it’s justification by faith or Christology or anything else, you have to say, of course this is culturally conditioned. He’s speaking first century Greek, for goodness’ sake. Of course you have to understand it in its context. But when you do that, it turns out to be a rich and many-sided thing. You cannot simply say, as some people have done, that in the first century homosexuality had to do with cult prostitution, and we’re not talking about that, therefore it’s something different. This simply won’t work. So yes, it is impossible to say, we’re reading this in context and that makes it different. What can you still say, of course, and many people do, is that, “Paul says x and I say y.” That’s an option that many in the church take on many issues. When we actually find out what Paul said, some say, “Fine, and I disagree with him.” That raises all kinds of other issues about how the authority of scripture actually works in the church, and at what point the authority structure of scripture-tradition-reason actually kicks in.
Can a Christian morality rooted in scripture approve of homosexuality? The word “homosexuality” is an abstract noun. What in the Anglican Church we’ve tried to do is restrict the debate to the practice of homosexual relations. Of course, many people claim to be “rooted” in scripture in a variety of ways. But if a church is actually determined to be faithful to scripture, then not only at that point but at several others — for instance, some of our economic practices — we would need to take a long, hard look and say, maybe we’re getting this wrong.
So a Christian morality faithful to scripture cannot approve of homosexual conduct? Correct. That is consonant with what I’ve said and written elsewhere.
Did you disapprove of the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson in the United States? It would be inappropriate for me to comment on that, given my membership on the Eames Commission, which is not going to be easy.
You could at least acknowledge that the consecration is problematic? I agree with what the primates said last October at their emergency meeting, which is that the consecration, if it were to go ahead, would “tear the fabric of the communion.” That was the statement of the primates last October, and I think it was clearly, almost analytically, true.
What resources does scripture offer for trying to think through the consequences for communion raised by this crisis? Paul has some fascinating passages about living with difference within the people of God. In 1 Corinthians 8-10 and in Romans 14, he talks about being prepared to accept one another as brothers and sisters, to eat together and to worship together, despite having differences on whether to eat food offered to idols, to eat meat at all, to drink wine, to keep special holy days, etc. Many people have tried to say, there you are, Paul has this principle of tolerance, and we should simply tolerate one another within the body. There are two problems about applying that right across the board. One is that Paul himself doesn’t apply it right across the board. There are many issues on which Paul says, there are no two opinions about this, this is the way it is. If people go a different route, then they are excluding themselves from the fellowship of the church and the church should ratify that.
For example? In 1 Corinthians 5, incest. A man is living with his step-mother, and Paul says this is simply not an option. He does not say, well, some of us think this is a good thing and some of us think it’s not, therefore let not the one who does judge the one who doesn’t. I’ve sometimes hypothesized, what if someone were to say to Paul: “Well, according to your principle of love, all God’s people should share their possessions with one another. Therefore, some of us in the church think that we should help this process on the way by going into our neighbors’ houses and helping ourselves to whatever we fancy, thus liberating these objects from the spurious idea of possession.” You can imagine someone might say, “Well, some of us believe in theft and others don’t, so let’s not judge one another.” Paul would just say, “Sorry, this is not an option.” We can think of several instances where he would say there’s a line at this point. So the question is, how do you tell which things are matters indifferent and which aren’t? This is a bone of contention, by the way, that goes back to the 16th century between the Anglican Church and the Roman Church. One of the foundational principles of the Anglican Church was that believing in transubstantiation ought not to be an issue of salvation and damnation. You should have flexibility about what you actually believe goes on at the Eucharist. Whereas of course the Roman Catholic Church has always said, “No, you’ve got to believe the whole thing.”
Paul’s insistence that there are limits to tolerance was the first problem. The second? The other is that when Paul is faced with a difference of opinion, he [puts the burden on] those who take what he calls “the strong line,” which is that things that might have been thought out of line are now permissible, such as eating meat offered to idols. He says that if at any point your weaker brothers and sisters, those who haven’t gotten to this point yet, are being caused to stumble by what you do, you must give up that right. Of course in the present church we see the exact opposite, where people are saying, no we must drive a coach and horses through this because this is the new morality, this is the way it is now. There we’re up against part of contemporary American religious mythology. It’s a sort of Gnosticism, a religion of self-discovery, which makes somebody in that position almost a sort of religious hero. They’ve got in touch with their true self.
The courageous individual struggling against the stick-in-the-mud institution. Exactly. So this is not just appealing for permission, it’s actually plugging into a story of liberation that is a very characteristic human story of the Western culture of the last 200 years. But it doesn’t correspond to the Christian doctrine of redemption. We really are in a bind there. It may help Roman Catholic readers to understand that from the Anglican view, we have not been this way before. The Anglican Communion has held together by good will, by shared prayer and support, without the need for macro-structures, without the need for a magisterium. All we’ve got is the personal role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which is not that of the pope. It is not an equivalent to the papacy. we have the Anglican Consultative Council, and we have the meeting of the Primates. None of those has a juridical authority over the whole communion. The only sort of sanction anyone has is that the Archbishop of Canterbury can choose not to invite somebody to the next Lambeth Conference. It’s a pretty mild slap on the wrist, though it would be deeply symbolic. It’s hardly the full weight of ecclesiastical sanction you find in the Roman Church. Up until this issue, there has never been an instance when the archbishop has said, along with the ACC and Lambeth and the Primates, that we ought not to go ahead with this, and a province or a diocese has said, we’re going to do it anyway. We’ve never had that before.
What about the women’s ordination question? No, it was much more complicated there. There was a general agreement that it should be decided province by province.
But not before the Episcopalians in the States acted. There was an earlier one as well, the Hong Kong ordination. This was the ordination of a woman during the war, really for a sort of in extremis situation. It was always sort of recognized that this was something that might happen, that could happen. In general, though there were some who jumped the gun, there was a sense that we must wait until Lambeth has given permission for the provinces to decide, and the provinces will make their decision. That was by and large how it went. Of course, the American church has a long and noble tradition of jumping the gun on things. I understand that. The American nation grew out of a rejection of British imperial rule, and a desire to do it its own way. It’s very difficult psychologically [for Americans] to accept a decision reached in London, even if it is made by a global community.
Or a decision reached in Rome. Sure, but America was never run from Rome, where it was run from London 250 years ago, and they kicked George III out.
So your point is that this is a new kind of crisis. What do you do? We don’t know. What we’re doing at the moment is that we have a Lambeth Commission, chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames, of which I’m a member. We had the first meeting, and it was a very good meeting, though it was largely a matter of staking out the ground and seeing where we were. It’s important to remember that the Lambeth Commission, the Eames Commission, is not examining the question of homosexuality per se, but the question of how you cope with this apparent or real fracturing of koinonia. Hence it’s more an ecclesiological question, and it’s more looking at structures of authority and how they work. There are those who say we must go to a looser structure, a kind of federation structure. Perhaps something like the Lutheran World Federation, a looser affiliation where they merely acknowledge that they stand in the same tradition without any sort of tighter belonging. Others want to push us in the other direction, towards a stronger central authority. I constantly get e-mails from American friends saying, “beware of creeping papalism.” There’s no real danger of Anglicanism turning into a papalistic structure, but by avoiding papalism some people mean moving not just to the Lutheran model but to something like the Baptist model, where each church is simply an independent entity. I have friends in the Texas Baptists where every single church is autonomous. I’ve asked what Texas Baptists believe about this or that, and they say you just have to ask the individual church. It’s up to them. They guard that independence jealously. That is the other route you could go, but most Anglicans around the world have never seen their koinonia that loosely. They’ve seen it as very much a matter of tight, shared bonds, and mutual support that goes with that. For instance, when Desmond Tutu was standing up facing rioting mobs who wanted to kill people, the Archbishop of Canterbury would send a senior bishop physically to stand beside him, as a way of saying that Tutu is part of a larger thing, and we’re here supporting him. Don’t think he’s just one lone voice. I know for Anglicans in the Middle East, it is hugely important to them that they’re part of a koinonia that happens to be rooted in Canterbury but spreads around the world.
Does the present crisis raise doubts about whether there really is a middle term between quasi-papalism and Baptist-style autonomy? That is the question, you’re absolutely right. If I knew the answer, the Eames Commission would not need to be meeting.
Are you optimistic that you’re going to find something? Leslie Newbigin, whose name you will know, a wonderful man I was privileged to know in the latter years of his life, was once asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about some issue. He said, “I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” I think that’s the only answer you can give. I don’t have any runes to read, I don’t have any tea leaves to read. I can’t tell you which way this might go. I do know that when we met together in prayer and fellowship and study at the first meeting of the Eames Commission, there was a strong sense that we could work together.
Is there good will all around? It seems that the Africans have made clear that they do not want to be in communion with a province that would consecrate a gay bishop, while the Americans chose their prophetic stand over the value of koinonia. Is there a desire on all sides to make this work? I think the problem is that we don’t yet know what the phrase “make this work” might actually mean. If people come with different models of what making it work might mean and then insist that everyone else fit into that, then we’re simply restating the question, not finding an answer. The meeting of the Eames Commission that is happening three weeks from now, in Kanuga, North Carolina, is designed to look at precisely what “making it work” might mean. I have not yet received all the papers my colleagues have been writing, and they have only just received mine. This really is quite new. For me as a New Testament scholar, it’s very rare to find a new problem to work on. The New Testament is a small book, and every single verse has been fought over by somebody. It’s quite interesting theologically to find that we have not been this way before, so we have to set parameters so we can move forward. That’s what we’re doing. I wish it were not so sad and contentious and damaging an issue, because on many things it would be really exciting to do this kind of fresh theology together. But unfortunately we’re doing it with a gun to our heads, and that’s tough.
The Robinson consecration in a sense created two crises: one inside Anglicanism, the other in Anglican-Catholic relations. The Missassauga statement pledged both sides not to take steps that would put further distance between one another on matters of faith and morals. Many from the Holy See now wonder what the point of such agreements might be. Do you appreciate why this has raised such questions on the Catholic side? Oh, yes, just as from the Anglican side you will appreciate that some of the over-enthusiastic pushing for extra new Marian formulas makes Anglicans feel, is it going to work, trying to do this ARCIC thing, if Rome is pulling off in that direction? I think on both sides we actually recognize that we’re not dealing with monolithic structures. I know that Rome appears more monolithic than Anglicanism does, but even in Rome there are, and it is well known that there are, quite different emphases. Even within the Vatican itself there are different emphases on several different issues. This doesn’t mean that therefore left to itself Rome will eventually adopt a more “liberal” stance. What we’re actually seeing is the crisis of late modernity, being played out on one particular rather uncomfortable and awkward playing field. It’s unfortunate that this is the battleground that’s been chosen, because a lot of people get hurt in this particular area. What we’re seeing are the cultural forces of the last 200 years, the Enlightenment and post-modernity as well, pushing the church very hard in a particular direction. The opposition to that could come from several different lines. Some say we just have to go back to a pre-modern way of looking at things and forget the entire modernist project, and then we’ll all be safe and sound and living in the 17th century. Then there are those who say, which is what I say, no, these are serious questions, we have to go through them and out the other side. We have to find out what kind of post-modern world God wants us to be creating. It will be a world that will be quite different from the present one. One of the reasons we have all these problems is that neither our politicians nor our church leaders have any idea what that might be yet. It seems to be we’re called to walk forward in the dark in faith and hope.
How important in the intra-Anglican discussion on this question will its ecumenical implications be? How is the relationship with Rome “weighted” It’s hard for me to assess that, because I haven’t been party to the relevant discussions in all the different parts of the church. I suspect the answer to that question will vary according to which particular bit of the church you happen to be in. It’s a strange thing, because there are a lot of people who are very ecumenically minded, but faced with another issue they care about even more, will allow that other issue to trump the ecumenical concern. There were many people who were very, very keen on working towards reunion, but who were even keener on women’s ordination, even though they knew that would set back Anglican-Orthodox relations and Anglican-Roman relations. Actually, it hasn’t set back Anglican-Orthodox relations in quite the way people thought it would, but that’s another story.
Didn’t the women’s ordination issue basically make the dream of full structural reunion a sort of eschatological objective? One of the factors again in the early ecumenical movement through the 20th century is that it was essentially conceived in modernist terms, which is precisely telling a big story by putting everything together. It was almost an imperial vision, let’s get everything under one roof and do everything the same. Gradually in the second half of the 20th century, people have realized that’s not the only way to do unity. A unity that meant uniformity, or single structure, might not be doing anything other than capitulating to the spirit of a particular age. We’ve got cultural issues as well as theological issues about what unity actually looks like. We’ve gone back to scripture to say, what sort of unity was there in the early church? It was a unity in diversity, both the Body of Christ image and the Jew and Gentile coming together image. People can learn to live together despite cultural differences, respecting those cultural differences, rather than having the culture of either medieval England or 19th century Italy or anywhere else imposed on anyone.
In the short term there’s still the question of whether a local church is in communion with Rome or not. In that sense, the women’s ordination issue and now the homosexuality issue seem to make clear that hopes for swift Anglican-Roman communion were exaggerated, yes? It’s interesting that the ARCIC statement on authority is still straining towards the possibility that if Anglicans were to find some way of affirming some kind of primacy, and if that primacy just happened to coincide with the one that already subsists in Rome, there might be a way of coming under an umbrella somewhere. Of course, I think they can make those arguments because they know the checks are not going to be cashed that soon. Depending on who was pope at any one point, they might easily find that if they did that, the pope might say you’re going to have to stop ordaining women for a start, and those who have been ordained have to recognize that they’re not really ordained. At that point the whole thing would be back to square one.
So the ecumenical consequences will not be the engine that drives the train in Anglican reflection? I don’t think it’s the main engine driving the train. I think for many of us it’s a very significant engine, among others, which are pulling a very heavy load. To extend your image, if you’ve got a very heavy load you’re trying to carry over a mountain pass and it takes five or six engines to do it, what happens if you take this one out or that one out? What if one starts going backwards? The answer has to be that we don’t know, which is both an exciting and a frustrating answer to give. It’s frustrating because we’d all like to have this one settled, and believe me I’ve got a number of other matters in my episcopacy I’d like to attend to.
At the end of the day, despite what you say about the clarity of scripture on the issue of homosexuality, are you willing to live in communion with the Americans? The Americans are not a monolith. The American province has its own enormous internal tensions, and part of the question is who speaks for the American church.
The vote was pretty clear. I know, but I have been bombarded with messages, e-mails, faxes, letters, expressing so many different points of view in the American church.
Are you willing to live in communion with this province that has taken this step? I don’t know that I can answer that question, because I’m not sure that until we have gone further down the road, we actually know what that might look like and what that might mean. It would probably be inappropriate for me to answer it too far anyway, granted the Eames Commission. I think it is precisely that question we’re all struggling with.
But you wouldn’t say that as a matter of instinct, the value of koinonia trumps your moral analysis of consecrating a gay bishop? It’s a kind of irresistible force and immovable object question. I think we just have to see how it plays out.
Let’s turn to the current debate in the American Catholic church about denying communion to public officials who take positions contrary to church teaching. Can scripture help us? It is difficult, because the main issue in 1 Corinthians 11, or so it seems, is the rich and the poor. People who have enough money and food are going ahead and having a great meal, and Christians who don’t are left out, left on the side. Paul is pretty severe about that. If I were simply to pick up 1 Corinthians 11 and ask, “What does this suggest about Eucharistic fellowship?”, the biggest issue that shouts straight back at me is that the rich, white, Western world, which keeps the “two-thirds world” in grinding poverty and unpayable debt, stands condemned every time it receives the Eucharist because its brothers and sisters in the two-third world are growing the wrong sort of crops, are paying compound interest they can’t afford, and are being left on the side. I really would want to go very hard on that. If you want to start with scripture, that is the moral issue that comes straight out of 1 Corinthians 11. Until one addresses that sort of question, more local questions about “the church teaches x, but this person says y, therefore should they be allowed to receive the Eucharist?” … what’s the point of even putting that one on the table until we’ve started to address the big ones?
I suspect one response would be that abortion is the defining moral issue of our times. If we can’t protect unborn life, this argument runs, we can’t protect anyone or anything. This is where I really would get quite angry with that point of view. Though I happen to agree with the stance on abortion, it seems blindingly obvious that it is not the big moral issue of our time. Global debt and the economic systems that were set up in 1944 with the Breton Woods Agreement, to slope the table so the money slides into the pockets of the Western banking system, at the cost of keeping most of the world in unpayable debt, seems to me as big a moral issue as slavery was 200 years ago. I and others intend to bang on about it until we achieve something. I just don’t think we can say, “abortion is the issue.” Apart from anything else, there are millions of children being born all the time in Africa, in Latin America, on the Indian subcontinent, whose economic circumstances are such that it would almost be better if they hadn’t been born. The reason they’re in those economic situations are precisely because of decisions taken in the World Bank and the IMF, and they are structural decisions, not just particular decisions. This has been so intensively and extensively studied, people have shown it so often, that I just wonder what kind of blindness it is that prevents people from seeing it. Of course part of the answer is, our churches have endowments. We’ve got investments in these things, and you can’t tell us to go back on that. That’s a serious problem, but it’s a problem that’s got to be addressed. Yes, abortion matters, but all this matters much, much more. Just in terms of sheer quantity, there are millions more people whose lives are totally blighted by it. That’s where I would go for starters. To play around with your Democratic presidential candidate, for example, seems to me to play with one particular pawn without noticing what’s happening on the chessboard as a whole. When you see the whole, I think you have to say, let’s try to address the big issues. If you haven’t got the courage to do that, addressing the little issues of one particular person and his views on this or that looks like a displacement activity. It looks like something you do rather frantically in order to avoid having to talk about the elephant in the living room.
The church, however, does not propose particular economic systems with the same clarity with which it denounces the killing of the unborn. That may be so, but Jesus says that you’re good at prophesying weather forecasts, why can’t you see the signs of the times? The weather forecasts that he instances are the easiest ones ever in the Middle East. If there’s a wind from the south, it’s going to be hot. If there’s a cloud coming up over the Mediterranean, it’s going to rain. It does not take a master’s degree in meteorology to figure that one out. If you stand in Jerusalem, that’s the way it is. Similarly, it does not take a degree in macroeconomics or a complicated statement from the House of Bishops to say that if two-thirds of the world is in unpayable debt, with compound interest getting higher all the time, and without a bankruptcy system that allows them to draw a line and start over, and if a small minority concentrated in our part of the world is getting richer and richer, being paid indecent sums of money on the basis of shuffling a few financial counters around and playing with these people’s lives … I don’t think it’s a complicated issue at all. I think it’s pretty straightforward issue. It only becomes complicated when people wriggle and twist and try to get off the hook.
The cure is more complicated than the diagnosis, yes? It is and it isn’t. The relief of global debt has actually been figured out. There are serious economists and bankers who have worked on this. I’m not an economist or a banker, but I have seen and talked to people in that field. They’ve got strategies where if you do this now, then you can do that next year, and so on. There would be ways through. Somebody said the sort of broad-brush sums we’re talking about would cost, say, America roughly the amount that it spends on going to the movies each year. It would cost roughly that amount to put the whole thing back the right way around. Then we could all proceed together. What really sticks in my throat is that while all this is going on, the American government, along with my own government and several others, talk about bringing freedom and justice to the world, when we are doing the precise opposite. Use of imperial rhetoric to cover up our own consistent greed … if we have any Christian moral courage, this is what we ought to be talking about. Face it, we are in a world where two-thirds of the people are poor and crying for justice. One-third of the people are rich and wanting more sex. I want to say, what is wrong with this picture? This cannot be the way the Creator-God intended the cosmos to work.
So arguing over whether to deny John Kerry communion for his stance on abortion, in your view, is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? Yes, more or less. I know that there are those for whom abortion is the issue, and for that alone they might vote this way or that. I respect that, I understand that. I feel very strongly, and think very strongly, about abortion too. I believe that abortion is normally an evil and ought not to be done.
You would support laws to abolish it? I don’t want to get into the details on that, because my country has gone a very different route than yours, and there may be different ways of getting from where we are to where we ought to be.
Prescinding from specific legislation, would you agree that the ideal society would not tolerate abortion? I notice that in the ancient world, ancient Greece and Rome, one of the things that doctors had to swear in the Hippocratic Oath was not to procure abortions. Of course, a lot of them did, but it was reckoned a bad thing even by ancient paganism. In ancient Judaism, it was absolutely condemned. One of the things that distinguished early Christians in the Roman Empire was that they didn’t practice abortion and they didn’t practice infanticide. This is why there were so many more Christian women than pagan women, which is one of the reasons Christianity spread. There were all these Christian women who, when they got married, insisted on bringing their children up as Christians. The Romans tended to expose female children after they’d had one daughter. So I just notice we are out of line with ancient paganism, ancient Judaism, and the early Christians, if we think we can use abortion-on-demand as a way of regulating the size of families and population. This thing has gone quite far enough, and ought now to be called back. How to do that will vary from system to system, because there are different types of laws. Having said all that, the fact that somebody has a view on this issue might mean you shouldn’t vote for him if you really think that’s the key issue. I’m not sure that it is in the current presidential election, but that’s another story. What it doesn’t ipso facto mean is that this person should be refused communion in church.
You’re a bishop of the Anglican Communion. Would you refuse to give communion to a politician who is on the wrong side of the structural economic issues you’ve discussed? Not automatically, no. I don’t regard refusal of communion as a weapon to be used as a part of a debate.
What about the argument that you’re not imposing a sanction, but rather this politician has separated himself from communion by his actions? But you see, it’s not that easy. We are all in compromised situations. Two hundred years from now, people may look back on us and say, “Those people knew that the internal combustion engine was polluting the planet and causing global warming, but they went on using those silly things called cars. How could they possibly do that?” People may look back and be horrified at what we’re doing right now, and we know it. But if I were to stand up in the pulpit and say we should stop driving cars, people will say, “Oh my goodness, the bishop’s really lost it this time.” Yet it may well be in the next 20 years that global warming causes enough of the polar ice cap to melt to cause a channel of cold water to come down the Atlantic seaboard, switching off the Gulf Stream and completely changing the climate of Northern Europe, plunging millions of people into freezing misery because we’re not prepared for it. Then we’ll say, “those guys were right all along, what a shame.” By then it will be too late because you can’t reverse it. There are huge issues afoot, and I don’t think you can address them by saying, “Here is one local politician who takes the wrong view, so here’s a slap across the wrist. You can’t come to communion.” That’s using a very small lever to drive a much larger issue.
Are there any conditions under which you would refuse a politician communion? There would be several, but they would be the normal ones that would apply to any human being. In our prayer book, we have a lovely 16th century phrase about a person being a “notorious evil-liver.” The notoriety is important, because it’s a matter of scandal within the church. If other people think, “So-and-so is receiving communion, this ought not to be allowed,” if there is a scandal being created, than that’s an issue that has to be faced. Of course, sometimes scandals can be caused by people whipping up scandal fever unnecessarily, and that’s a matter to be dealt with pastorally, not a knee-jerk reaction that because some people are upset we’ve got to boot this guy out. I just don’t think the use of this as a way of getting at issues is ever going to be helpful.
National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 2004