This morning, to prepare for the upcoming annual convention of our Episcopal Diocese, I am pondering two resolutions on which we will vote. Because I have to suffer through this, so do you. (N.B.: There’s an important point at the end, and it goes way beyond The Episcopal Church. Still, if you’re short on time, skip to the boldface paragraph below.)
The two resolutions deal with the church’s trial courts, which come into play whenever a complaint is lodged against a priest or bishop. Our national convention has instituted a new structure for the court process; some people think it runs against the Church’s constitution. So, I’ve been doing some research to figure out what’s happening here.
Stop me if the following sounds oddly familiar.
One key issue is whether the power to make this change resides with the national authorities or the local authorities. Much has been written to interpret the (possibly) relevant clauses of the Church’s constitution. Look through the constitution itself, however, and the language is not only vague, but written in a specific time and place. It (perhaps deliberately) left the task of interpretation to later generations when they faced issues not covered by the language therein.
Sound familiar yet? If not, here’s a clue: Think U.S. Constitution. And the Bible.
U.S. Constitution first. One key issue is whether the power to make changes resides with the national authorities or the local authorities (i.e., the states). It is perhaps the fundamental difference between Democrat and Republican. Much has been written to interpret the (possibly) relevant clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Look through the Constitution itself, however, and the language is not only vague, but written in a specific time and place. It (perhaps deliberately) left the task of interpretation to later generations when they faced issues not covered by the language therein.
That’s why we have these fierce debates over the separation of church and state, say, or the right to privacy. You won’t find these words in the Constitution itself. Instead, the Constitution left the interpretation up to us.
The Bible, I would submit, is the same way. We have a text that, mediated by the Spirit of God, guides us in the way we live our lives, individually and collectively. It too was written in specific times and places. The authors could not have foreseen, for instance, the scientific findings of the past half millennium, which provide new data to inform the debate over when life begins or whether being GLBT is genetic.
In a nutshell, then: In critical parts of our common life, we have a guiding text before us. It does not answer everything, so our charge is to interpret the text—as well as the interpretations that have come before us—to arrive as close to the truth as we can.
If we can at least agree on this, it could be huge. Why?
Because this perspective cuts us loose from certainty: in particular, the certainty that drives us to point to one clause and divisively proclaim that “the Constitution clearly says.” Our resulting lack of certainty—as well as its corollary, the fact that we need one another to sort out the truth in light of the text—drives us to work together, to listen to one another, in the humility that no one has a corner on The Truth. Out of such collaboration come better dialogue, better ideas, better decisions, and greater unity.
If this is true, my earnest hope is that we can adopt this perspective more fully: in our diocese, in the United States, and in our faith traditions.