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Roman Catholic-Anglican Ecumenical Union: A Cause I Can No Longer Support

ISSUE:  Spring 1992

I am deeply in debt to members of the Roman Catholic Church. Dr. Raymond Brown, of Union Seminary in New York City, has taught me more about the Gospel of John and the birth narratives of Jesus than any other person. Dr. Edward Schillebeeckx, a Dutch New Testament scholar and theologian, has deeply fed my quest to understand the Christ portrayed in the synoptic gospels. Rosemary Reuther and Elizabeth Schuesler-Fiorenza, both college professors and lay theologians, have brought to me the greatest insights into Christianity from the feminists’ movement. Dr. Charles Curran, former professor of ethics at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. has informed my knowledge of sexual ethics in remarkable ways. John J.O’Neil, a former Jesuit, has significantly shaped my understanding of homosexuality. The Rev. Matthew Fox has opened for me vast new arenas in the life of the spirit. The Rev. Leonardo Boff has given to me new insights into the feelings of oppressed minority people and has articulated for me a theology of liberation that has grown out of that human experience. Dr. Karl Rahner and Professor Hans Kung, above all others, have helped me to develop a Christian theology capable of engaging the thought forms of the 20th century. All of these people who, either in person or through their books, have been teachers of mine are members of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, most of them are ordained members of that church. I shudder to try to imagine my life without the enrichment that this star-studded cast of 20th-century Christians has provided to my professional and personal development. For them I have an enormous sense of gratitude.

Yet despite this tremendous indebtedness that I feel to the Roman Catholic Church for providing me with these gifts, I must also state openly and honestly that the ecumenical movement has in the past quarter-century for me deteriorated dramatically. In particular the growing hope that once marked the dialogue between Anglicans and Roman Catholics at official levels is suffering from what many regard as a terminal illness. The official position of the ecumenical relations between these two world bodies has degenerated to the place where any points of difference or disagreement at all stated by any non-Roman Catholic seem to be greeted by anguished screams from the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, and the label “Catholic bashing” is bandied about recklessly and inappropriately by these Catholic leaders.

When the Episcopal Church and the Anglican communion in the 70’s and the 80’s moved toward the ordination of women into the priesthood and episcopacy, we endured a nonsubtle Roman Catholic involvement in our internal affairs and decision-making processes. When the Episcopal church voted to ordain women in 1976, the American Roman Catholic Church announced almost immediately that it would be willing to receive into the Roman priesthood any Episcopal priests who disagreed with this policy. So eager were they to do this that they even allowed married Episcopal priests to take advantage of this offer, without relinquishing their married status. There were then, as there are now, thousands of Roman Catholic priests who are forbidden by their hierarchy to practice their priesthood because they have decided to get married. Rome has shown little leniency in dealing with its own married clergy but, so eager was the hierarchy of this church to oppose women in the priesthood of another part of catholic Christianity, that they were willing to relax their standards to receive married Episcopal clergy who would flee the Episcopal church over its decision to open the priesthood to women. Many of those received (and I might add re-ordained, since Rome does not recognize Anglican orders as valid) were welcomed in widely publicized services, one of which took place within the confines of my Diocese, in Chatham, New Jersey.

We have in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark today, either serving as priests or in the process of becoming priests, six former Roman Catholic clergy. That kind of cross-fertilization in the ranks of the ordained has gone on since the beginning of the English Reformation. It would not, however, occur to me to announce and celebrate publicly this transition, as if we had a defector from the camp of an enemy. Indeed, I have honored the request of a New Jersey Roman Catholic Bishop not to place one of these now Anglican priests into the city where once he served as the Dean of the Roman Catholic Cathedral. Nor would it occur to me to have our church announce publicly through some medium like The New York Times, that the Episcopal church stands ready to receive into our priesthood all those Roman Catholic clergy who disagree with their church’s official position on birth control. Yet Rome’s invitation to Anglican clergy to come to the Roman priesthood if they disagree with the Episcopal decision to ordain women was in fact tendered through the front page of The New York Times.

When the Anglican bishops of the world met at Lambeth in 1988, Pope John Paul II wrote Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, a widely publicized letter suggesting that the ecumenical movement would be seriously impaired if the Anglican communion moved to legitimize women bishops in the various branches of our church (women bishops exist today in two Anglican provinces—the United States and New Zealand). Pope John Paul’s letter was, in fact, a threat, and it was used by conservative Anglicans to strengthen their opposition to women as priests or bishops.

The Anglican communion, however, heard the message of the Pontiff, considered it, and respectfully disagreed with it. I heard no one suggest that this letter, though overtly critical of Anglican policy and Anglican decision-making, was “Anglican-bashing.” It was, in fact, an area of significant disagreement in the Christian family. So we listened and ultimately rejected the witness of one who is surely our brother in Christ. But if the Bishop of Rome has the right to speak about Anglican practices that seem to him to impede the quest for the ecumenical unity, then Anglican leaders must also have the right to inform our brothers and sisters in the Roman tradition of practices within that church that make ecumenical activity difficult to impossible for us. Surely that message can be heard in mature dialogue without defensive whimpering as if any disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church over an issue constitutes somehow an attack upon God.

I am one Anglican bishop who is not in favor at this particular moment of pursuing or working for ecumenical union with the Roman Catholic Church. I trust that this is a temporary and not a permanent stance, but it will be my position until my sister communion begins to address three essential issues. First, the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward women, which permeates both the way it understands its faith as well as its practice; secondly, the attitude of this church toward homosexuality, which reveals not only an unwillingness to hear new data but also high levels of ecclesiastical hypocrisy; and thirdly, the claim by this church of its own infallibility, which makes significant internal disagreement all but impossible and which gives to its ecumenical partners the empty choice of either converting and returning to the “true church” or wasting time in meaningless dialogue over trivial subjects that matter very little to anyone.

These three issues have grown more important to me as we have undergone a revolution in both knowledge and technology in the last one hundred years. Since Pope John the 23rd, the Roman Catholic Church has, for all practical purposes, aborted its movement to adapt to these new realities.

Today the depth of our separation and disagreement is glaringly obvious. The attitude toward women inside the Roman Catholic Church illustrates this truth on many levels. This church reflects so totally the patriarchal and authoritarian prejudices of yesteryear that efforts to address these issues reflected in the Roman Catholic Church’s corporate attitude toward women can start in a variety of places, some of which I shall describe briefly.

1) Mandatory Celibacy for Priests. The requirement of an unmarried status for entry into the Roman Catholic priesthood is a modern day relic of an attitude of the past that viewed women as evil, the seducers of noble men. It is an attitude reflected in the myth of the garden of Eden that portrays the woman as the weak flesh through which sin entered human life. Eve gave Adam the apple, and he ate it. So if a man seeks the holy life of the priesthood, he cannot be polluted by the presence of an evil woman.

I do not mean by these comments to denigrate voluntary celibacy. Surely some people are called to a life of service so total and so intense that there is room in that life for no other commitments. Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa come to mind as obvious examples. But the assumption that every person called to the priesthood is also called to celibacy is a step only institutionalized negativity toward women could possibly maintain. Attempts to cover the celibacy requirements with pious rhetoric only illustrate the reality that this practice reflects a view of women that comes out of a biased and antiquated patriarchal past.

Since I do not believe that women are evil, or that the holy life is achievable only if a man is unmarried and therefore sexually unrelated to a woman, or that ordination requires an unmarried status, the present stance of the Roman Catholic Church that mandates celibacy as a requirement for ordination is to me an enormous barrier to any desire on my part to seek ecumenical unity.

2) The Ordination of Women. Closely related to the same attitude is the Roman Catholic refusal even to discuss the priestly vocations of women. When Rome argues that it is not a concept of women as sexually evil that lies behind the requirement of priestly celibacy, we might respond by asking why then are unmarried women who bind their sexuality inside the vow of celibacy not welcomed into the Roman Catholic priesthood? Such a question elicits explanations seeking to address this issue that are revealing in that they are even more antiquated and, I might add, even more negative, toward women. A woman cannot represent God at the altar, they suggest. Only a male can do that.

This argument is, of course, based on St. Paul, who argued that only men were created in God’s image. Women, the apostle asserted, were created to be male helpmates. This argument was given fresh impetus by John Cardinal O’Connor in New York City when, in June of 1991, he asserted the basic maleness of God to an incredulous public. The New York Post, in typical headline-fashion, made sure that its readers did not miss the meaning of the cardinal’s words, which of course necessitated several clarifying statements. Contained in these assumptions of God’s maleness is the not-very-well-hidden tenet that since only men are really created in God’s image, therefore only men are fully human. Women are thus immediately defined by implication as being slightly subhuman. Once that definition becomes operative, then it immediately follows that the effective ecclesiastical power of the church that represents this male deity can be entered only through ordination, and the decision to require that this channel remain exclusively in the hands of males is validated. Everything flows from the original premise, a premise that, in my mind, represents bad theology, bad scriptural exegesis, and bad practice.

In fairness it must be added that Roman Catholic women, including especially some incredibly gifted nuns, are today given important administrative roles in such areas as education and social welfare. But in terms of real power these roles are largely cosmetic. These women are all appointed by and serve at the pleasure of an ordained man. In the Roman Catholic Church, which is both hierarchical and non-democratic, power flows from the pope to the cardinals to the archbishops to the bishops to the priests, and only then, to the nonordained lay people. That flow guarantees that no woman will ever share real power in that church until ordination itself is opened to women. Every attempt to address this power imbalance apart from ordination will fail, and every pastoral letter that seeks to deal with these issues without including ordination as an option will be nothing more than an ecclesiastical version of that strange Southern race argument known as “separate but equal”—a doctrine that guaranteed separation but never equity. Indeed, by that sweet-sounding phrase, Southerners in their prejudice attempted to legitimatize their racism in the South decades ago to enable the white power structure to oppress and to use the black powerless society. It did not work then and was finally struck down as a sham by the Supreme Court. It will not work now even with either the theological phrases of piety or the constant appeal to the prejudices of the past performed under the phrase “sacred tradition.”

When the argument against women, based upon their supposed lack of being in God’s image gets embarrassing, then someone inevitably will shift the debate from God’s maleness to Jesus’ maleness, which is, of course, a fact of history. Not only was Jesus a male but he also, so the argument goes, did not choose any women to be his disciples. Hence, it is concluded that Jesus clearly intended to limit the priesthood exclusively to males. This is an especially strange argument. It suggests that since patriarchal definitions of women were operative in first-century Palestine that therefore these prejudices can be lifted into God and mandated as the Divine Will for all time. The status of women in the first century was so low that women were in every detail of their life under the control of a man—either their father’s or their husband’s. Women could not hold property, vote, or participate in the male assemblies or in male affairs. Women were not educated, they could not bring legal action in their own name, and their testimony was not admitted in any decision-making forum. There were no careers outside the home for women. In first-century Jewish society, for a woman to be chosen for the role through which people believed the messianic task was to be accomplished would be beyond imagining. For Jesus to have chosen women to be among his disciples, he would have violated every social rule which governed Jewish life. But surely the social structures of first-century Jewish society cannot become the model by which the will of God for all time is to be discerned. What other social rule of first-century Palestine do we regard as divinely imposed? None of which I am aware. This argument is only a disguised attempt to give rational credibility to an obviously antiwoman bias.

How literal do we wish to be in our prejudice? It is true that Jesus chose no women to be his disciples. He also did not choose any Polish, Italian, Irish, Anglo-Saxon or African males. Clearly the church has never literalized the Jewishness of Jesus’ disciples. Only the maleness of Jesus’ disciples has been literalized and identified with the divine plan. That strange line of reasoning has only the single purpose of keeping women out of the priesthood. It is a reflection of patriarchal, sexist prejudice and not sacred tradition that is operative here.

3) Birth Control. Another issue of debate for me arises directly from this all-male, unmarried priesthood that controls the decision-making power structure of this church. From time to time this narrowly defined priesthood, in the name of a masculine God called Father, makes proclamations about issues that primarily affect women. Yet women have no say in those proclamations. In recent years, as Professor Charles Curran knows all too well, these proclamations have been lifted to the level of dogma, and no deviation nor debate is allowed. The ban on birth control is one such case in point.

The one advance that has above all others opened the door to equality for women in this century has been the development of safe and effective birth-control devices. This technology has enabled women to plan their families, to find fulfilling careers for themselves outside the home, to develop their intellectual capacities in every sphere of human knowledge, and, finally, to stop the mad population explosion that threatens to reduce drastically the quality of life for all people before another century is complete. Given our present economic realities, that population explosion today consigns literally thousands of children in the underdeveloped countries of the world to the cruel fate of death by starvation. Almost every technological breakthrough from surgical procedures to miracle drugs that enhance or prolong life is acceptable to Roman Catholic ethicists, save for the technological breakthrough of safe and effective birth control. This one area of scientific advancement is a veritable emancipation proclamation for women, for it has the potential of freeing women from the male-imposed biological definitions and stereotypes of yesterday. So essential is effective and safe birth control to the health and well-being of women, and so effective is it in countering the geometric spiral of overpopulation, that I have come to view the failure on the part of any religious institution or political entity to endorse and provide safe effective birth-control technology for all women the world over to be itself an act of immorality.

It is clear to me that in the developed nations of the West today Roman Catholic women use birth control methods as regularly as do non-Roman Catholic women, so the actual result of this stand by the church’s hierarchy is not to gain compliance but to enhance the reality of guilt among Roman Catholic women. I would not, therefore, be interested in seeking ecumenical union with any ecclesiastical body that defined birth control as sinful and made this definition an official part of its dogmatic teachings. It is difficult for me to take seriously a church that promulgates official positions that are so out of touch with reality that even its own members overwhelmingly ignore those positions.

4) Abortion. The Roman Catholic prohibition against all abortion grows out of the same negativity toward women that permeates this church. Yet abortion is a far more complicated and critical issue to which justice can hardly be done in a short treatise. I know of no one who favors abortion per se, for it is far too complex an issue for such a simple solution. Surely no one advocates or recommends that anyone or everyone ought to have an abortion. Every abortion represents some failure resulting in the necessity to make a difficult decision in a critical moment. I must face these realities seriously and openly. The issue for me, however, is whether or not a medically safe and legally protected abortion shall be an option for any woman facing a complicated or unwanted pregnancy that has serious ramifications for the life of the child or the mother. I maintain that every woman must have this option.

I wish that abortions were not so frequent. I wish that sex education and birth control devices were both available in and through public schools. I wish illegitimacy did not occur and that no babies were born with AIDS. I wish that every young person today had proper parental guidance in every home. But these conditions are not in the world in which I live. Until we address and solve these public and social issues I will lobby for legally protected and medically safe abortions to be one choice open to every woman, and I will continue to advocate the position that in the last analysis each woman must have the final right to say what happens to her own body.

If sex education and birth control were widely and effectively disseminated, then I would welcome a more conservative approach to abortion, though I would still favor it remaining a legal option. For the Roman Catholic Church to oppose legal abortions while also opposing birth control and public sex education, is to me so inconsistent that I cannot do other than to oppose and reject this stance. Because the Roman Catholic Church has been so overtly political in its efforts to reverse Roe v. Wade, they must expect their position to be opposed publicly by other religious leaders. I find it hard to believe that when this opposition surfaces the non-Roman Catholic Christian leader who takes that stance is then accused of “Catholic bashing.” There is no sanctuary from criticism in the political arena. By definition the political arena is the place where options are debated. I could not favor union with an ecclesiastical body apparently so fragile that instead of being willing to debate the issues it contented itself with attacking those who marched to the beat of another drummer.

I could also refer to the Roman Catholic emphasis that the ideal woman was the Virgin Mother. Since a virgin mother is an impossible ideal, its primary legacy is the creation of guilt among all other women who do not achieve this ideal. Beyond that, this patriarchal institution serving its anti-female prejudices has presented this ideal woman to us only after she has been so thoroughly desexed that she has become dehumanized. Before Mary could become the male-dominated church’s female ideal, she had herself to immaculately conceive, produce a child without benefit of a male agent, remain a permanent virgin despite this birth process, and at the end of her life escape death by being bodily assumed. One wonders what is so evil about female sexuality that all these repressive steps had to be taken. Once again we see the outline of an attitude toward women that is rooted in an historic patriarchal negativity. Until that negativity is addressed, the prospect of ecumenical unity with this body so infected with this prejudice has no appeal to me.


The second area of intense pain that makes Anglican-Roman Catholic harmony difficult is found both in the issue of homosexuality and in the ecclesiastical hypocrisy that surrounds the issue of homosexuality.

Surely it is no secret that there are homosexual Roman Catholic ordained persons just as there are homosexual Anglican ordained persons. A Roman Catholic historian, named John Boswell, the chairman of the department of history at Yale University, has chronicled in scholarly detail the role played by homosexual clergy in the first 1400 years of Christian history. It was a massive role, to put it bluntly. The requirement of an unmarried priestly status surely meant that the priesthood of the church offered gay men a sanctuary from both the pressures to get married and the prejudices of society. Hiding in the closet of the priesthood these gay males lived lives of great dedication and service. Not all of them were celibate, as the literature of the period makes abundantly clear. Anselm and Lanfranc, both Archbishops of Canterbury before the English Reformation, from a reading of their personal letters and diaries, are widely regarded today as having been homosexuals.

But the unwillingness of the Roman Catholic Church to look at this data is not what bothers me most. That lies rather in the tremendous fear of either homosexual persons or their own secret involvement with homosexual persons that causes the Roman Catholic Church to banish “Dignity,” the organization of Roman Catholic gay and lesbian persons, from holding their meetings in Roman Catholic churches. There is abundant evidence today that the vast majority of persons who are homosexual are born with that sexual orientation and are therefore not capable of having that orientation changed significantly. Are these people to be welcomed to the church only by denying who they are? Even if gay and lesbian people are regarded as sinners is there no place of welcome for sinners? Why this overwhelming hostility and rejection? In the New York City Gay Pride Parade of 1991, what struck some of my clergy participating most poignantly was that when they marched by St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, they saw it barricaded and guarded. At the very least, must not the Christian church assert that homosexual persons are children of God and members of Christ? A church that must barricade itself against any human being is in danger of losing its soul.

I see no reason to deny the fact that homosexuality is in the Anglican priesthood and that some Anglican priests have died of AIDS. I buried two such priests of my diocese in 1990. My church is quite public about this issue. Are we to assume that no Roman Catholic priests have died of AIDS? Why the cover up? Why the perpetration of an illusion? Where lies the deep and unrelenting fear? Is the issue so small that it can be ignored or so large that it threatens the very integrity of the institution? John J.O’Neil is a former Jesuit priest who has written extensively on the subject of homosexuality. His personal insights have greatly enriched my understanding of this aspect of the human experience. He has been removed from the Jesuit Order because he was honest about his homosexuality. Dishonest homosexual males remain Jesuits.

I do not insist that everyone share my point of view on this issue, but I cannot admire an institution that is so deeply touched by this issue but denies it so thoroughly, and even goes so far as to seek to keep these people from its doors. The majority of the people that are being met today through The Oasis (a ministry to gay and lesbian people in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark) are lapsed or alienated Roman Catholics. They feel hurt, abused, and rejected by the church of their birth. They know who the gay clergy of the Roman tradition are. They know the depths of the hypocrisy. While my church engages this issue openly and with much pain, it is hard for me to be enthusiastic about seeking unity with an ecclesiastical body whose life is marked by denial and rejection of the presence of gay and lesbian people, both in its midst and in the lives of its ordained and its religious.


The third great area that separates me from a desire to seek ecumenical union with the Roman Catholic Church is an unwillingness on the part of this church to allow dissent about great theological issues. Rome did not open itself to the field of Biblical scholarship until well after World War II. The antiquated idea of Papal infallibility in the defining of faith and morals continues to make learned dialogue with any nonconforming ideas all but impossible. I am not drawn to a church that still debates whether or not to lift their penalties pronounced on Galileo in the 16th century for his suggestion that the sun rotated around the earth. I am embarrassed that a branch of the Christian Church as recently as the late 1940’s, in an encyclical by Pope Pius XII, was still denying the insights of Charles Darwin. I ache for Roman Catholic scholars who have to compromise their scholarly findings in order to receive the church’s imprimatur. I feel the pain of Hans Kung, a deeply devoted Roman Catholic priest and professor, who was removed from his chair as a Roman Catholic theologian at Tubingen, and the pain of Charles Curran who was removed from his tenured position at Catholic University, because neither of these Roman Catholic priests could as scholars affirm the present Catholic position as interpreted by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I stare in amazement at the ecclesiastical attempts at mind control that will stoop to silence Matthew Fox and Leonardo Boff.

I wonder how this church will grow and change if it allows no debate and no dissent? I wonder whence conies the fear that is expressed in refusing to entertain new ideas? Sigmund Freud once suggested that any system of thought that claims to have been received by divine revelation against which there is no appeal, that is dispensed to the people through the only body that was authorized to receive that revelation and which claims infallibility for its articulation of that revelation and, therefore, allows no challenges and no questions, is clearly a system of thought that its adherents do not really believe. Truth that is really believed does not have to be so deeply protected from honest inquiry. But religious propaganda designed to enhance institutional power always requires protection. Why, one must ask, is any religious organization afraid of its own people and its own scholars? Why is it afraid of open inquiry? Or, as one religious poster once observed, why is it that churches that claim to have all the answers will not allow any questions?

Because I believe that God is bigger than the theological system human beings create to speak of God, and because I believe that human understanding will never capture, codify, or exhaust the divine mystery or the divine truth, I could never be drawn to a church that stifles discussion, bars dissent, and demands conformity. So I am not enthusiastic about seeking ecumenical unity with the Roman Catholic Church today, nor will I be until this ancient institution opens itself to change and to new possibilities.

But does this mean that I dislike Roman Catholics? Of course not! Does it mean that I do not see the vast areas of life where Roman Catholics and Anglicans share great essential parts of a common faith story? Of course not. Does it mean that I am no longer eager to join in ecumenical cooperation with my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters to fight those things we both regard as evil: racism, poverty, homelessness, capital punishment, and thousands of other issues that to both Roman Catholics and Anglicans dehumanize life? Obviously not. Does this mean that I will not continue to treasure personal friendships that I have made over the years with Roman Catholic archbishops, bishops, priests, nuns and lay people? Of course not. Some of my most enthusiastic fan mail comes from Roman Catholic nuns and lay women to whose concerns I give a voice that their own bishops are prohibited from giving. I recall with great pleasure leaving the set of a television studio after doing a national network program with a well-known Roman Catholic anchor woman. We had, in that segment, discussed the sexual issues that affect women in the life of the church. As we walked down the hall to remove the makeup she said, “Good luck with your book! I wish we had bishops like you in our church!”

For that woman and for many others I will continue to raise issues that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church cannot or will not raise. I will do it vigorously and publicly. I will make every effort to do it competently and respectfully. But let there be no mistake, these issues stand between me and any desire to seek ecumenical union. So long as that is so I will welcome personal friendships with my Roman Catholic contacts, and I will endeavor wherever possible to work in ecumenical cooperation. But I will waste no time in discussion of peripheral matters. I will study no documents drafted after years of consultation that neither side officially endorses, and I will oppose any effort at ecumenical union that does not involve dramatic changes in these areas. I am not willing to sacrifice women, divorced people, gay and lesbian people, or theological debate and the eternal search for God’s truth upon the altar of seeking institutional or ecumenical unity inside the Christian Church.

The day will come, but it will not be in my lifetime nor in the lifetime of John Paul II, when ecumenical union will have a new and better chance to succeed in making us all one in the Body of Christ. I am content to let that day come as I am certain it will. From whatever vantage point I may have with which to observe that new day, I will rejoice in its arrival. Perhaps my grandchildren or great grandchildren will see the day in which the realization of our Lord’s prayer that all those who belong to God might be one with each other will come to pass. But the basis for that union is simply not present today, and I have herein stated from my side, why that is so.


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Rev. Fr. David Knight's picture
Rev. Fr. David ... · 6 years ago

It is amazing to see how Mr. Spong in his antipathy to the Catholic faith places himself so far from the faith received from the teachings of Christ and the apostles. The wholesale defection of millions from liberalism which is Spong's real faith demonstrate that his truths are only his. The sexual revolution of the 1960s which he adores has lead only to the feminization of young men and the glorification of the sin which is homosexuality.  His poor theology is equally poor public policy.  One can only observe that the Roman Catholic Church of 1992 didn't blink unlike the Epicopal Church which has made failure an art as it has redefined itself time after time. Redefining victory is Spong's idea of tradition.


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