Rehearsing Discord in Canterbury
  • Thursday, November 10, 2011

By Bryan D. Spinks

The International Anglican Liturgical Consultation (IALC) is one of the better-kept secrets of the Anglican Communion; few people know of its existence (since 1985), and even fewer read its reports. Usually its meetings pass largely unnoticed. This year’s meeting, like previous consultations, would probably have soon passed into oblivion, but for a presentation on same-sex blessing rites by a delegation from the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM).

Since many provinces rely on outside funding, the IALC meets in full session every four years, with “interim” (less funded!) consultations in between. IALC is an advisory body on liturgy for the Anglican Communion, and a representative from the Primates’ Meetings is expected to attend each consultation. For a variety of reasons, however, this advisory body is hardly representative of the Communion. Many of us attend because we are professional academics and scholars; others attend as members of provincial liturgical commissions or as liturgy lecturers. Some provinces have many members present, while others have only one, and some are not represented at all. The net result is that IALC has a large representation of Euro-Atlantic liturgical academics and official representatives, who far outnumber other voices and interests. Euro-Atlantic and Anglo concerns tend to predominate.

This year’s full meeting, held August 1-6 at Canterbury, was charged with writing a report on Christian marriage and its liturgical celebration. An interim meeting in New Zealand in 2009 had already begun that discussion, and for reasons of unity the IALC decided that Christian marriage was to be understood in the hitherto traditional Christian sense of one man united to one woman.

Liturgy is always a somewhat difficult subject, and for many obvious reasons much time is devoted in seminaries and colleges to the evolution of baptism and the Eucharist. Quite often liturgy courses spend only one session on marriage liturgy, and take the form of a “how to” rather than a “from where” and “why” approach. Few take the time to research the evolution of Christian marriage rites, East and West, or any detailed theologies of marriage. The net result is that most delegates, and even many seminary instructors, are not prepared to produce a report with the same rigor as on Eucharist or Baptism.

The consultation heard two important papers. The Rev. Dr. Simon Jones of Merton College, Oxford, raised the issue of requiring that one party be a baptized Christian (in the context of unashamedly revenue-driven television and internet ads by the Church of England). The Rt. Rev. Mdimi Mhogolo, Bishop of Tanganyika, Tanzania, lamented the suppression of indigenous customs of marriage through laws modeled on those of the United Kingdom. Both papers raised serious questions about how the Church engages with culture while at the same time not abandoning a Christian-based liturgy.

One of the thorniest problems for Anglicans is our concern, inherited from England as part of the medieval Western Church, to contract a marriage at the same time as celebrating the marriage. In the Byzantine tradition vows are not part of the official liturgy; marriage is celebrated by crowning and blessing, and not contracted by vows. Of course, in most Western countries, the requirements of canon law passed into state law, and the exchange of vows is not an optional extra, but a legal necessity.

Historically and liturgically, though, vows were latecomers to the liturgy, and have become something of a cuckoo in the nest, making everything else appear as an unnecessary add-on. One of the questions discussed was how to limit the intrusive nature of vows, and how to introduce other, traditional symbols into marriage, either from the Christian tradition (crowning, blessing of the marriage cup, anointing during the blessing) or from indigenous culture.

Of the 56 participants representing 19 provinces, 11 were from the Episcopal Church. Other than South Africa, only two African provinces were represented. One bishop from Africa was afraid that his name might be seen attached to any report of a discussion on same-sex blessings.

The constitution of IALC says that any province has the right to request bringing a particular issue before the consultation for discussion and advice. In March the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music requested a meeting with the IALC’s steering committee. The Episcopal Church funded the meeting. That meeting persuaded the committee to find a slot in the overcrowded week for a presentation on the SCLM’s proposed forms for blessing same-sex couples. While this was called a “consultation within a consultation,” it consumed an entire morning. It was difficult for many members of the consultation not to see this as an attempt to treat the proposed rite as a natural extension of our discussion on Christian marriage.

The SCLM members asked the consultation to discuss the liturgical material but not to discuss whether it was legitimate, since the Episcopal Church’s General Convention had authorized its preparation. Their background theological papers were not available to the consultation for scrutiny. A liturgical rite was given a dry run so the consultation might experience it as a rite and not just a text. Many consultation members responded that since this rite contained vows, it was more a rite of same-sex marriage than a blessing of same-sex couples.

The Rt. Rev. Colin Buchanan, retired Bishop of Woolwich, England, observed that the act of preparing a blessing rite concedes the propriety of a venture and sanctions it. Indeed, it appeared that the SCLM sought the consultation’s imprimatur for its work.

I will say, as a Brit, that this “consultation within a consultation” was not cricket. It was one more act that strains the bonds of charity, complicating the ministry of many IALC members from provinces with a moratorium on same-sex blessings. Discussing the propriety of same-sex blessings is important, and still needs to take place in a serious, charitable and fully informed manner across the Communion. To short-circuit the debate is unhelpful. The debate needs to be undertaken in more competent and representative bodies of the Communion than the IALC.

If the SCLM representatives were really listening, they will know that the late intrusion of this difficult subject into an already problematic consultation was received with both coolness and disbelief. But I suspect listening was not the main object of this exercise. Instead, it interrupted and deflected a much-needed serious debate across the Communion on liturgical celebration of Christian marriage, and prevented the issue of same-sex unions from stirring anything more than an emotional response. Christian marriage celebration itself needs careful attention and needed to have been the sole concern of the Canterbury Consultation.

The Rev. Dr. Bryan D. Spinks is Goddard Professor of Liturgical Studies and Pastoral Theology at Yale Divinity School. He teaches courses on marriage liturgy; English Reformation worship traditions; the eucharistic prayer and theology, Christology, and liturgy of the Eastern churches; and contemporary worship.

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