Sex was the occasion for the Windsor Report, not its subject. The commission was charged with looking at the deeper problem within the global Anglican family: how to remain as a family, despite diversity.
The theological word for "family" is "communion". This pregnant term evokes, among other things, participation in the life of the triune God, the consequent partnership of Christians with one another, and the expression of both in the Eucharist. The question is: What does this "communion" mean in practice? Does it have boundaries and constraints, and if so what are they? How much diversity is appropriate?
Here, some contemporary Anglican discourse, especially in the US, has reached for two contemporary philosophical ideas: "difference", echoing Derrida (though without his subtlety), and "the Other", a central theme in Levinas. Frank Griswold, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (USA), has repeatedly urged that we "celebrate difference" and "embrace the Other". In other words, we must be a broad church without nasty, rigid boundaries.
These concepts are problematic even in their own terms, though this is usually ignored in the public discourse which has made them central to its (ironically narrow) new morality. But invoking them in current Anglican debate simply begs the question. We all agree that some "differences" are to be celebrated. We all agree that some "Others" are to be embraced.
But, as the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf argued in his award-winning Exclusion And Embrace (1996), random "embracing" risks colluding with behaviour which should instead be questioned. To celebrate all differences (not that anyone does, but some talk as if we should) is to collapse into soggy Anglican niceness, a simpering, "tolerant" parody of genuine Christian love.
Here the Windsor report restates a classic Anglican (and Pauline) doctrine: adiaphora ("things indifferent"). Some differences, particularly those involving ethnic diversity, must not be allowed to fracture communion. But one must distinguish the differences which must not make a difference and those which are bound to do so. Not all cultural characteristics are to be embraced. The Scythians were famous for being hot-tempered; the Corinthians, for sexual laxity. Both lifestyles are ruled out, declares Paul, for those "in Christ". To insist on them is to divide the church.
The question then is: which things come into which category? Which differences make a difference? At this point some would have liked the Windsor report to short-circuit the argument - either to declare that the north American churches had been "prophetic", pointing towards a bright new future, or, with the global Anglican majority, to reaffirm traditional biblical ethics. Either of those courses would likewise have begged the questions: How do we know? and Who says?
Anglicans have developed, over the years, soft-edged and subtle ways of addressing those questions. The Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates' Meeting, and the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, together constitute not a papal-style Curia, but a network of "instruments of unity". In previous hard cases (for example, women bishops), individual Provinces have taken care not to proceed without these bodies agreeing that the innovation will not harm "communion".
The charge against the US churches, for which they have been invited to express regret, is not that they took certain decisions, but that they thereby knowingly ignored, and hence damaged, the "proper constraints of the bonds of affection" which, expressed in these "instruments", hold us together. That is why the report also criticises inter-Diocesan invasion, however well-intentioned.
So far, the only expressed regret has been that actions taken have hurt other people. That is not the point. What matters is a refreshed understanding, rooted in scripture and common tradition, of how "communion" works. That is what the report is all about. That is why we have urged that the "instruments" be tuned up, without losing their essential character, to meet the needs of a new day.
The natural consequence of treating the "instruments" with contempt is that one would not then participate in them oneself. The report, determined to treat those involved with proper respect, suggests that they might, in conscience (and, we could add, in logic) draw this conclusion for themselves.
Whether they will do so remains to be seen. The crowning irony might be that, in seeking to embrace the Other, the US churches will ignore the obvious meaning of that idea within sexual morality itself; and that, in celebrating "difference", they will ignore the difference between one kind of difference and another.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 23rd October 2004