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From the July/August, 2010 issue of Touchstone


Communion Wavers by R. J. Snell

Communion Wavers

R. J. Snell on the Triumph of Anglican Experience over Faith & Reason

By now the confused state of the Anglican Communion is rather obvious to anyone following our debates about homosexuality. Of course, Anglican confusion is hardly new, and we often joke among ourselves about our ability to muddle through, confident that our three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason will yet again hold up. But things seem different this time; the stool seems not broken so much as discarded and ignored, at least by some.

I’d suggest that a narrow focus on homosexuality is likely to miss the underlying cause of our confusion, something like watching your neighbors when they’re half-way through a spat, when things have turned really nasty, but in the furor forgetting that the argument started over something else now buried under passion. Sometimes women’s ordination is blamed for originating the mess, for as progressives ignored or interpreted away Paul on ordination, the grounds were set for ignoring or reinterpreting passages on homosexuality.

Maybe so. When the Church of England first ordained women, the Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement did write a short letter reading, “Dear Sir, Please note that all the arguments used for the ordination of women can also be used for the ordination of practicing homosexuals.”

Experience Trumps Authority

But whatever the implications of ordaining women may have been, it seems to me that, if one burrows more deeply into the cultural ethos, he will find that the breakdown of authority was popularly accepted much earlier, with the Anglican acceptance of contraception. The defense of homosexuality is informed, indeed made possible, by previous decisions to divorce procreation from marriage, thus placing sex firmly in the guidance of experience rather than rationality and the usual forms of authority. That is, in removing procreation from marriage, Anglicans lost Reason as an authority in sexuality, and when ever-changing experience made Scripture and Tradition archaic, no other limits remained.

The Lambeth Conference of 1930 accepted artificial contraception despite the unequivocal voice of the tradition and despite the (subsequently short-lived) unanimous rejection of contraception by all other denominations. Though contraception was hotly debated throughout the 1920s and 1930s, by the time of the 1958 Lambeth Conference, when it was entirely given over to individual conscience, it was already, as currently explained on the Church of England’s website, “a way of life among most Anglicans.”

The website is rather frank in its admission that contraception was not defended via the normal forms of authority:

Anglicans have tended to call on “Scripture, Tradition and Reason.” Increasingly these approaches are being supplemented by appeals to “human experience.” It is clear, for example, that the experience of Christian married people in relation to contraception explains some of the changes in Anglican thinking between 1930 and 1958.

Contraception, for Anglicans, was the occasion when the three-legged stool wobbled. To be fair, Scripture is rather coy concerning contraception, but Tradition and Reason firmly rejected it—as they did homosexuality—as a violation of the natural law. Tradition, then, appealed to reason, even when Scripture was quiet. But whatever the difficulties caused by the silence of Scripture, the defenders of contraception certainly weren’t attempting to correct an encrustation of tradition to recover the pure authority of Scripture. Experience governed this decision, and experience alone, a dramatic shift in Anglican identity.

What Experience Confirms

So dramatic was this change that by 1989, in an essay titled “The Body’s Grace,” Rowan Williams, not yet constrained by his position as Archbishop of Canterbury, would proclaim without reservation that

in a church which accepts the legitimacy of contraception, the absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and non-scriptural theory about natural complementarity.

For him, as for so many others, the jettisoning of procreation as a good of marriage is tantamount to accepting homosexuality. Especially since, as he says, “the realities of our experience . . . suggest pretty clearly” that a declaration “that every sexual partnership must conform to the pattern of [traditional] commitment . . . is unreal and silly.”

And he might be right. Experience might confirm his belief that many traditional marriages “are a framework for violence and human destructiveness.” Experience might also confirm that “decisions about sexual lifestyle” can be decisions about what “we want our bodily selves to mean.”

Experience might confirm many things, to be sure. And might deny just as many, which is why Anglicans had thought that perhaps the vagaries of experience were to be guided by Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, not the other way around.

Disruptive to Understanding

All this is old news, of course; everyone knows that experience can trump authority in these debates. What tends to still fly under the radar, however, especially in Protestant circles, is how the whole-hog acceptance of contraception creates the bloated status of experience, and how disruptive this is to a rational understanding of the marital act.

Consider Rowan Williams again. In the same essay, “The Body’s Grace,” he suggests that since same-sex love cannot be “considered as instrumental to some other process (the peopling of the world),” homosexual love reveals the meaning of desire, which is “for joy,” for “non-functional joy.” In fact, Williams suggests, God is so non-instrumental in his “attitude to sexuality” that we might honestly wonder “whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it.”

Notice Williams’s linkage of rationality and function. He contends that same-sex love is non-instrumental, serving no purpose external to itself, but since purpose implies rationality same-sex love doesn’t fit the pattern of rationality.

There was a time when the failure of something to fit into the pattern of rationality might have counted as an argument against it rather than an argument somehow mysteriously supporting it, but we clearly do not find ourselves in that time. In the tradition of natural law, however, which has been the tradition of the Church, sex is reasonable, and the fact that it has purposes indicates that it has rational goods capable of being integrated into a virtuous life.

Confusion About Instrumentality

But one needn’t grant to Williams the claim that rational sex is merely instrumental, or that the “joy” he defends is obviously non-instrumental. That sex might be a means to joy, a joy-making act, is hardly proof of its non-instrumentality. One can engage in sex for a variety of non-procreative reasons—to relax, to end a fight, to take revenge—and still treat the act as a means rather than an end. That joy has no immediate cash-value does not imply that attaining joy is non-instrumental. Seeking joy can be as mercenary as anything else.

Further, Williams fails to recognize that marriage is itself a non-instrumental good and that sex is not extrinsic but is rather the act constituting marriage. We do not have married people who then have sex; rather, potentially procreative sex actualizes (constitutes and reconstitutes) marriage. This is precisely why consummation is thought vital to the legal standing of a marriage.

Children are, then, not external products to be attained by the instrument of marriage, but rather gifts participating in and made possible by the same act constitutive of marriage’s intrinsic good. Williams so confuses emotional goals with the point of sex that having children seems to him rudely impersonal and joyless, merely the means of “peopling the world.” But of course, humans have sex as persons, and as marriage is a communion of persons, so, too, is the marital act of procreation categorically distinct from an assembly line of belts and pulleys.

Grim Reminders

I’m not suggesting the right use of contraception is settled so briefly, but I would consider the goods of marriage to be rationally understandable, a fact the tradition comprehended and encouraged, thus safeguarding itself from the vapors of experience. But given the deep confusion about the rationality and purpose(s) of marriage inaugurated by the acceptance of contraception, a confusion “solved” by experience rather than reason, it shouldn’t surprise us that some Anglicans, formed for decades by this previous confusion, again turned to experience when Scripture, Tradition, and Reason seemed alien and demanding on the issue of homosexuality.

Nor should it surprise us, given this ongoing confusion, that the Church of England and my own Episcopal Church are disappearing. The average age of Episcopalians is sixty-two. By 2050, a mere three percent of those attending the Church of England will be under thirty. These are grim reminders of what Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, likes to say: “Episcopalians do not do evangelization by reproduction.”


“Communion Wavers” first appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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