A few years ago, there was a movie entitled concussion starring Will Smith. Very few people saw it mostly because the underlining plot was clear to all who had been paying attention. The film was about the impact of the NFL and football in general on the brain. The movie argued that the NFL knew about the negative impact of the repeated collisions on the brain and hid the results to protect the brand. Will Smith plays a doctor who discovers the truth and engages in a long fight to get the data out to the public. In the trailer, we hear Smith say in a somewhat passable Nigerian accent, “Tell the Truth!” Having seen the trailer, and knowing what I knew of football from experience, I did not watch the movie. But Smith’s words, “Tell the truth” stayed with me.
Large organizations with the power to control communications and manipulate public perception often have difficulty telling the truth. This especially true in churches that have a vested interested in portraying a certain image to the world. I confess that in recent years as I have watched the politics of the Anglican communion, especially the information coming out of the Primates’ meetings, I have often wanted to yell in imitation of Will Smith’s imitation, “tell the truth!”
What do I mean? I will not recount the last 15 years of Anglican politics for those who are uninformed, but this much is clear. Significant portions of the Global South want some discipline to be enacted against churches in the West who have changed their teaching on marriage. This change came even though the overwhelming majority of the communion has not found sufficient theological warrant for such a revision. Large sections of the church in the West, even those who still ostensibly hold to a traditional view on marriage, do not want anything to be done about this revision. For them, marriage is a matter on which people of good will can disagree.
A church that was honest and had the trust of its members would address this issue directly. It would gather its leaders and ask the following question: Is human sexuality a matter of adiaphora or is it church dividing? It would tell the media that this is the topic of conversation. It would say that we are meeting to talk about marriage and not pretend that marriage is some insignificant issue to be addressed before moving on to climate change or something else more palatable to a secular press. It would tell its member churches. It would invite its best theologians to a public and sustained debate. This is what we do in the academy. When there is an unresolved issue, we return to the sources and bring our best to the debate. We publish our works and submit them to public analysis. We learned this from the church that taught us to pursue truth because all truth has its origin in our creator. A church that deserved our trust would then explain to its member churches how it came to its conclusions. This would allow member churches to discern whether the reasoning was something it could support. It would tell the truth.
Sadly, it seems that those in charge of the flow of information want to take a different path. The current Primates’ meeting and the previous one has taken one line from a larger communique and made it the talking point. We have repeatedly heard of the Primates’ desire to “walking together.” This line rightly speaks about a desire for continued unity. I too am for unity! But such talk neglects the fact that the agreement to walk together was only possible because a significant portion of those who attended thought that the “consequences” enacted against the Episcopal Church would be substantial.
It has quickly become clear that such consequences meant very little. If the Episcopal church can fully participate in the Primates meeting, the ACC, and the Lambeth Conference, and remain in uninhibited relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury, then there are no consequences. It is like a parent who punishes a teenager by saying, yes you can still have your car, phone, and go out with your friends, but as you drive around think about how much your actions hurt us. Yes, the teenager might complain; but he or she knows that they have escaped real consequences. Furthermore, the consequences are insufficient to deter future action by that child or any other children who are watching. If those in authority expect traditionalists to believe that the last fifteen years have been about who goes to ecumenical meetings, then it is not telling the truth.
I contend that rather than provide a real forum for theological debate and for the will of the majority to be heard, those in power have used every tool at their disposable to manipulate an outcome that presents a view of the communion that is far from reality. We have not agreed to disagree; we have been forbidden from having that disagreement fully and substantially engaged. This control of the flow of information is and has always been colonialism.
The NFL, in the end, failed. The truth about concussions finally made its way into popular discourse. The sport did not end, but by most metrics youth participation is down. It is down because families rightly want to know whether having their sons play this sport will have damaging long term effects. In the same way, the truth about the will of the communion will eventually come out. When it does, our long season is subterfuge will be an embarrassment. People will know that our church cannot be trusted to have the conversations that we need to have when we need to have them.
At some point, the conversation that the Communion has avoided must be addressed directly. Is marriage an issue on which we can agree to disagree or is it foundational? To assert unity in the face of diversity is not compromise; it is a theological assertion. It is an assertion regarding the very question that divides the communion. What should those with integrity do, regardless of what side one finds oneself on? Tell the truth.