A SEASON OF FASTING: REFLECTIONS ON THE PRIMATES’ MEETING

An extract from some reflections offered by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori on the February meeting in Dar es Salaam

We travelled home from this meeting at Carnival, the farewell to meat (carne vale) that comes just before Lent begins. That is an image that may be useful as we consider what the Primates’ gathering is commending to the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church has been asked to consider the wider body of the Anglican Communion and its needs.

Our own Church has in recent years tended to focus on the suffering of one portion of the body, particularly those who feel that justice demands the full recognition and celebration of the gifts of gay and lesbian Christians. That focus has been seen in some other parts of the global Church, as inappropriate, especially as it has been felt to be a dismissal of traditional understandings of sexual morality. Both parties hold positions that can be defended by appeal to our Anglican sources of authority – scripture, tradition, and reason - but each finds it very difficult to understand and embrace the other. What is being asked of both parties is a season of fasting – from authorizing rites for blessing same-sex unions and consecrating bishops in such unions on the one hand, and from transgressing traditional diocesan boundaries on the other.

A parallel to this situation in our tradition might be seen in the controversy over eating meat in early Christian communities, mentioned both in the letter to the Romans and the first letter to the Corinthians. In those early communities, the meat available for purchase in the public market was often part of an animal that had been offered (in whole or in part) in sacrifice in various pagan religious rites. The troubling question in the Christian community was whether or not it was appropriate to eat such meat – was it tainted by its involvement in pagan religion? Did one participate in that religion (and thus commit apostasy) by eating it? Paul encourages the Christians in Rome and Corinth to recall that, while there may be no specific prohibition about eating such meat, the sensitive in the community might refrain if others would be offended. The needs of the weaker members, and the real possibility that their faith may be injured, are an important consideration in making the dietary decision.The current controversy brings a desire for justice on the one hand into apparent conflict with a desire for fidelity to a strict understanding of the biblical tradition and to the main stream of the ethical tradition. Either party may be understood to be the meat-eaters, and each is reminded that their single-minded desire may be an idol. Either party might constructively also be understood by the other as the weaker member, whose sensibilities need to be considered and respected.

God’s justice is always tempered with mercy, and God continues to be at work in this world, urging the faithful into deeper understandings of what it means to be human and our call as Christians to live as followers of Jesus. Each party in this conflict is asked to consider the good faith of the other, to consider that the weakness or sensitivity of the other is of significant import, and therefore to fast, or ‘refrain from eating meat,’ for a season. Each is asked to discipline itself for the sake of the greater whole, and the mission that is only possible when the community maintains its integrity.

Justice, (steadfast) love, and mercy always go together in our biblical tradition. None is complete without the others. While those who seek full inclusion for gay and lesbian Christians, and the equal valuing of their gifts for ministry, do so out of an undeniable passion for justice, others seek a fidelity to the tradition that cannot understand or countenance the violation of what that tradition says about sexual ethics. Each is being asked to forbear for a season. The word of hope is that in God all things are possible, and that fasting is not a permanent condition of a Christian people, nor a normative one. God’s dream is of all people gathered at a feast, and we enter Lent looking toward that Easter feast and the new life that will, in God’s good time, be proclaimed.

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