Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What to Think? Communications Constructions & Pastoral Pathology

Last night the House of Bishops released a statement of where they are as a body. In part the statement responds to the Communiqué issued by Anglican Communion Primates in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania last February. The media and the Anglican Blososphere are weighing in on it left and right. What I would add for now are two observations and one critical comment:

1) Range of Reactions:

It’s striking to observe the range of reactions among progressives (e.g. see comments to posting on Fr. Jake’s blog). Some people are incensed, while others think this was a decent outcome that clarifies what the next steps need to be. Integrity USA, the organization of LGBT Episcopalians, has issued a quite positive statement, saying that the bishops stood firm, resisting the demands of the Anglican Primates. I have also observed question marks about Integrity’s statement from some progressive corners, a sense of ‘are we reading the same document?’ There can be no doubt that the primary work of the next General Convention, which will be held in Anaheim, California in the summer of 2009, is to repeal the resolution known as B033 (which stated “that this Convention therefore call upon Standing Committees and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise restraint by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains on communion”). Yesterday's bishops statement points to the language from that resolution as ‘where the church is’ right now. It also stated that the immortally ridiculous phrase, “those whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church”, includes gay and lesbian people.

2) Media Constructions

I’ve been part of several conversations recently about what angles on this story the media may be missing. The aspect about which I hear most is the notion that this split within the Episcopal Church is not happening on nearly as big a scale as the media seems to think it is. This morning, Michael Paulson of the Boston Globe remarked, “The Episcopal Church has repeatedly sought to portray the conservatives who would leave as a tiny minority.” He doesn’t come right out and say he doesn’t buy it, but he does make it clear he detects spin. I don’t think he’s mistaken, but I also agree that the numbers aren’t nearly as high as conservative groups spin them to appear. Nevertheless, the global dimension of our conflict may ultimately make the congregational numbers game irrelevant; the story itself is impacting infinitely more people than we can count, in and out of the Anglican Communion, for good and/or ill. We can’t just count those who are leaving the denomination. There’s a fascinating communications war going on in all of this. If, as I believe, the media does not simply report on but also constructs its subjects/objects, then the entity known as the ‘Anglican Communion’ is now inflected by the increasingly global concept of homosexuality, and—fascinatingly, to me-- vice versa. How often now, when reading about homosexuality in Global South contexts, do we find some reference to the Anglican Communion? It’s incredible.

3) Pastoral Pathology

The bishops made a distinction between “authorizing” same sex blessings and “making allowance” for them for pastoral reasons. Translation: no diocese has written or officially authorized any liturgies for the blessing of same sex unions, but in many places services have long been allowed to take place. A resolution from the 2003 General Convention even acknowledged that reality. Yesterday’s statement says that most bishops are not making such “allowances”. But where they are doing so, they do it for reasons of “pastoral care.” By the end of their statement the bishops affirm the need to respect the dignity of LGBT people, speaking in terms of our civil rights.

What we’re seeing here is an affirmation that the church is willing to fight for full inclusion outside the church, but that within the church that same fight can only take place under the rubric of “pastoral care.” Indeed, Bishop Caroline Tanner Irish of the Diocese of Utah commented, “’I think putting [same-gender blessings] in the context of 'pastoral care' is the critical word,’ she said. She praised the House of Bishops for what she called the hard work and compromise offered by all the members.” It’s a sad day when the very term “pastoral” takes on a patronizing and pathologizing hue, but that’s exactly what’s happened. The pastoral gets to respond compassionately to disorder. As long as LGBTI people remain officially relegated to the ‘pastoral’, we remain contained, and a worship service that should be a sacramental vehicle of transformation ends up implicitly framed (by bishops, not necessarily by the priests who conduct them) as a kind of pat-pat, there-there, I’m-praying-for-you-in-all-of-your-challenges kind of way. To add insult to injury, there are those who are speaking of the need to make limits to the pastoral. Great. Well, I’m not interested in waging this fight on pastoral grounds. I’m fighting for the full flourishing of human beings, called by God to ever-increasing authenticity, ever more true and clear reflection of the likeness of that image in which we were created.

We’ve got our work cut out for us in the 2009 General Convention. And when I’m not utterly frustrated, I’ll be curious to see how the communications construction process evolves along the way.


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