June 28, 2013

The Wisdom of Robert Duncan

Two days ago, I wrote about the arrogance of Roman Catholic bishops in their commentary on this week’s Supreme Court decisions involving same-sex marriage. (See “Catholic Bishops Offer Their Wisdom.”) Under the circumstances, I can hardly ignore the June 26 statement made by Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). (Curiously, the statement was posted as a PDF file and does not seem to be anywhere on the ACNA Web site.)

For convenience, I will reproduce the brief “Archbishop’s Statement on the Supreme Court Decision on the Definition of Marriage” here:
An extremely divided court reflects an extremely divided nation. Equal rights under the law is a bedrock commitment of the United States of America and can often be accomplished by creative legislation. Nevertheless, the definition of marriage long pre-dates the United States and is a given of the created order. The motto of the United States is “One Nation under God.” The Christian Church has followed a Lord who meets people where they are, and who loves them regardless of their challenges. The Church has countered the culture throughout most of its history. We find ourselves, both sadly and increasingly, in this position in a nation once seen as a “light upon a hill,” and a “hope of all the earth.”
I want to comment on this statement line-by-line.
An extremely divided court reflects an extremely divided nation.
The nation is indeed divided on the matter of same-sex marriage, but it is rapidly becoming less so. The trend is toward greater acceptance of same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court is divided, with the majority on the court generally representing minority opinion in the country at large. The 5–4 opinion in United States v. Windsor is about par for the course these days.
Equal rights under the law is a bedrock commitment of the United States of America and can often be accomplished by creative legislation.
This odd statement is a transition to a justification for unequal rights. Presumably, the archbishop thought DOMA creative and proper, not discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional.
 Nevertheless, the definition of marriage long pre-dates the United States and is a given of the created order.
As did the Roman Catholic bishops, Duncan appeals to the view that marriage has been defined by God and cannot legitimately be altered by humans. He alludes to this argument without actually making it because he is writing for his committed followers, not for the world at large.
The motto of the United States is “One Nation under God.”
This is another allusion, rather than an argument. Moreover, it is a non sequitur disconnected from what came before and what follows. Duncan refers to the belief that the United States of America was founded as a “Christian nation.” Not only is this not true, but it is not even plausible. The founders wanted nothing to do with a king, and they surely were unsympathetic to an established church that was an extension of the crown. The motto of the United States, by the way, is “In God we trust,” which was adopted in 1956, at the height of the Cold War. A better motto in every way is “E pluribus unum,” which is found on the Great Seal of the United States but which was never officially declared our national motto. (See “A Matter of Mottos.”)
The Christian Church has followed a Lord who meets people where they are, and who loves them regardless of their challenges.
This is a kind of love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin statement that, in any case, seems to be moving far afield from comment on the decision of the Supreme Court. The first part of the sentence is fair enough, but the notion of  “a Lord … who loves [people] regardless of their challenges” is very odd. Jesus did make a point of loving people dealing with illness, possession (mental illness?), or even death. One might call such problems challenges, but that is unconventional usage. Duncan seems reluctant to suggest that gay people are sinful and therefore refers to them as “challenged.” Mostly, of course, they are challenged by the malice of Christian bigots.
The Church has countered the culture throughout most of its history
Lacking any real criticism of the Supreme Court—did any clear-thinking American believe DOMA was constitutional?—Duncan asserts the Church’s virtue. The Church’s mission is not to “counter” culture, however, but to represent justice and mercy as best it understands it. Culture is not always wrong, and the Church is not always right. Duncan’s sentence here is not transparently true, and I suspect that many historians would consider it false.
We find ourselves, both sadly and increasingly, in this position in a nation once seen as a “light upon a hill,” and a “hope of all the earth.”
I’m not sure exactly what Duncan means by “countering” the culture—I thought that was what the sixties hippies did—but I suppose he means holding a different view from the generally accepted one and making that view known. As long as ACNA’s doctrine is considered to be unchanging truth, it is indeed likely to be progressively more out-of-step with modern society, with the most enlightened aspects of it, in any case. The suggestion that the nation was “once  seen as a ‘light upon a hill,’ and a ‘hope of all the earth’” suggests that Duncan, at one time, didn’t feel quite so much need for countering. The “light upon a hill” alludes to John Winthrop’s famous sermon and has become a common assertion of American exceptionalism. “Hope of all the earth”, however, is very curious. Duncan uses it to refer to the United States, but I have always seen it applied to Jesus. Perhaps this causes no cognitive dissidence if one buys into the America-founded-as-a-Christian-country myth.

On reflection, the Duncan statement may not be on the ACNA Web site because it does not even rise to ACNA’s standard of coherence. Certainly, the archbishop succeeds in making the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops look good by comparison.

6 comments:

  1. Perhaps Archbishop Duncan would prefer to emigrate to Nigeria.

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  2. 'Malice of Christian bigots'--sad to see one Christian, especially a friend, attributing malice and bigotry to another simply because the other holds a different opinion about a serious spiritual matter. Christians of both opinions in the Diocese of Pittsburgh are being asked to live together in the same church; will this help or hinder that goal?

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    1. Philip,

      I was referring neither to Bob Duncan nor anyone I know in this diocese as a “Christian bigot.” It would be disingenuous, however, to suggest that there are not Christians—perhaps I should say “Christians,” since their behavior is anything but Christian—whose attitude toward gays is nothing short of hatred. Even Duncan admits that gays have faced “challenges,” and the people who have persecuted them often justify their behavior with religious rationale.

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  3. Lionel's not "attributing malice and bigotry to another simply because the other holds a different opinion about a serious spiritual matter". This isn't about *Christian* marriage. This is about CIVIL marriage. It's about using the Power(-Over) of the State to deny citizens their equal rights. Endorsing that Power-Over---that over which Satan has sway, as Jesus tells us---is INDEED an act of malice and bigotry.

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  4. Someone posted this Gene Robinson quotation of Facebook: “90 to 95 percent of all oppression we have experienced as gay people has come through the hands of religious people, and it is going to take religious people to undo that.”

    This is from someone who can speak with greater authority than I.

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  5. What a wonderful analysis, especially two sentences that fall under the category of "I wish I would have written this":

    1) "Duncan seems reluctant to suggest that gay people are sinful and therefore refers to them as “challenged.” Mostly, of course, they are challenged by the malice of Christian bigots."

    I think you struck a nerve because you dare to "challenge" the ACNA party line. Your statement is absolutely true - "challenge" is Duncan speak for sinful behavior. He and his followers need to be constantly reminded of the suffering heaped on the small LGBT community by the established Christian mega majority. Psychologists must have a field day with conservatives who feel so insulted when other people are granted basic rights and they themselves lose none of theirs while having no empathy whatsover for the historic sufferings of a minority group.

    2) "The Church’s mission is not to “counter” culture, however, but to represent justice and mercy as best it understands it. Culture is not always wrong, and the Church is not always right."

    More than 36 years ago I heard a speech given by the chairman of the religion department at Trinity University who interestingly lamented the Church's failure to lead change in society and its later johnny-come-lately acceptance of the positive change provided by those in secular society. Secular society was often out front first on needed social change and the Church lagged behind. He was on to something. Sometimes "Secular Society" is not a corrupt force full of debauchery but rather has the right idea to which the Church should join hands fighting for justice.

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