Monday, November 01, 2004

Professor O’Donovan on REGRET

The Oxford Professor of Moral & Pastoral Theology is highly respected and so I offer this reflection on his views with some hesitation but as a way of advancing the discussion. I do have the honor of belonging to Christ Church, Oxford, where he holds his professorship and canonry.
Here are sections 4 & 5 of Oliver O'Donovan's comment on The Windsor Report followed by some observations by me:
4. The reader who can glance more or less simultaneously at §§ 134
and 155:
"the Episcopal Church (USA) be invited to express its regret that
the proper constraints of the bonds of affection were breached…."
"We call
upon those bishops who believe it is their conscientious duty to intervene in
provinces, dioceses and parishes other than their own to express regret for the
consequences of their actions..."
will not be impressed by the claim that the
Commission treats the actions of the Episcopal Church and those of the
intervening bishops as morally equivalent. They are not described in equivalent
terms with respect to their subjective motives (breach of affection is not the
same as conscientious duty) and therefore they are not presented as equivalently
regrettable (what was done is to be regretted in the one case, what ensued is to
be regretted in the other).
5. This bears on the more substantive and
interesting criticism that the verb “regret” is altogether too weak to convey a
fully Christian repentance. Some critics, of course, wanted the Commission to
demand repentance for believing homosexuality to be acceptable, which, as we
have seen, they regarded as beyond their brief. Yet laying that aside, it is
still clear that the actions of ECUSA which the Commission finds it in its brief
to criticise are intended to be repented of.
The choice of the verb “regret”
is easily understood when the subject is an institution, not an individual. The
Episcopal Church (USA) does not have a conscience, though its members do. It
cannot feel compunction, though its members may. It does not have a face to
blush with shame. It does not have limbs to tremble before the wrath of God. All
the subjective experiences that can and may go with “repentance” are
inappropriate to an institutional body. An institution, we may say, repents
simply by regretting – i.e. by repudiating its own past actions. Yet this act of
institutional regret is to be regarded as an aspect of the whole Christian
baptismal duty to reject sin and turn to Christ. That is made unambiguously
clear in §134, where it is said in explanation for the Commission’s requiring
this act of regret is that “the imperatives of communion” are “the repentance,
forgiveness and reconciliation enjoined on us by Christ”.
It has been said
that this expression of regret will be too easy for the Episcopal Church to
make, ergo the Commission got it wrong. It has also been said that it is
impossible for the Episcopal Church to make, ergo the Commission got it wrong.
Well, we shall see. But bonds of affection are bonds of charity, and the “proper
constraints of the bonds of affection” are the restraints of love which should
warn us from actions that will hurt Christ’s body. To admit that these
“constraints… were breached” in the election and consecration of a bishop for
New Hampshire is to admit quite simply that the Episcopal Church failed to act
out of charity – than which no more serious admission can be made. The English
language will not tolerate the paraphrase: “We did it, and there was a row. What
a pity!” An admission made strictly in the terms that the Commission requests
would be seriously worth having; and it would contribute decisively to the
healing of the body of Christ – on which depends the very possibility of
tackling the underlying issues constructively.

Let us first reflect upon the idea of “regret” as appropriate to an institution, and “repent” as appropriate to a person.

The institutions in view here are the Synod of the Diocese of New Hampshire, the Synod of the Diocese of New Westminster, and the General Convention of the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. -- and perhaps the Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada.

Each of these bodies is made up of clerical and lay leaders and they have a corporate identity as they make decisions for the large bodies that they represent. Further, they sit under the Judgment of the Lord our God!

Why is it appropriate to ask each and any of these bodies to express regret, but not repentance?

Both regretting and repenting obviously apply to and can be engaged in by an individual person. There are many calls within the Bible for individual persons to engage in what may be described as regret and repentance.

BUT ALSO there appear to be many calls within the Bible for a group of people – a tribe, the people of Israel, a specific church – to repent (See Ezekiel 14:6 & 18:30; & Revelation 2 - 3). Presumably in the same way that a synod can make a decision (even by a majority vote) with emotion and in favor of “the blessing of gay partnerships” or “the approval of a gay man as a bishop”, so the same synod can later (after hearing the word of God afresh) make a decision (even by a majority vote) to do a U-turn within an appropriate sense of the judgment and mercy of God. Such corporate decisions/acts obviously not only imply that a majority of those present as individual persons are deciding or repenting (with different degrees of intensity) but also that there is an “extra” dimension at work when the body as a corporate entity repents.

Dr O’Donovan states: “An institution, we may say, repents simply by regretting – i.e. by repudiating its own past actions.” But why cannot the institution – synod – not merely repudiate its past actions but also clearly decide to go in a new direction – doing a U-turn, and showing appropriate godly emotions as it does so. Why cannot this part of the one universal body of Christ, acting as one corporate member of that body, act together in repentance as well as in regret?

It is possible, of course, to understand “regret” as the beginnings of, or as a weak form of repentance. “Sorrow for something said and done” can lead on to a turning from it and a going in a different direction in word and deed, because one has changed one’s mind. Maybe some Commission members thought in these terms.

Yet we need to remember that not a few African bishops, whose intense piety is profoundly informed by reading the Bible and praying over it, have called for “repentance” because they see clearly that not only the prophets of Israel called for repentance by the whole people (institution) but also the apostles called for repentance by churches.

In conclusion I think that we have to consider that another possible explanation for the use of “regret” and the avoidance of the word “repentance” by the Commission is perhaps that “regret” is a common word in modern politics and that even decent public leaders and political groupings from time to time express regret in Congress or Parliament for misguided or careless actions and words.

Perhaps the Commission did not want openly and obviously to offend the leadership of the ECUSA and Anglican C of Canada by using a distinctively Gospel word with the associations of a definite change of mind under the judgment of God – and, furthermore, a word that had occurred often in submissions to the Commission from Africans and Western Evangelicals!

Perhaps also the weak understanding of “communion” held by the Commission (as a kind of basic denominational unity) only requires a public statement of regret rather than a definite U-turn with godly sorrow, when the rules [or divine commandments] are broken by one of the members.

To speak personally, I believe that it is possible that the Synods mentioned above will express regret (in the weak sense of the word) for breaking the rules of the denomination. by disregarding a majority viewpoint and by setting aside the importance of the bonds of affection. I also believe that it is highly unlikely that they will express real regret (in the strong sense of the word) and even more highly unlikely that they will as corporate bodies engage in repentance with godly sorrow. I expect them to show great political sagacity in the way they act from now on.

So my fear is that, while the Anglican Communion may be preserved in Name into the future, it will be as an International Denomination with basic elastic rules rather than as a definite Communion of Churches, a Communion based upon a Common biblical and classically Anglican Faith & Order.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon October 30 2004.

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