By Canon Gary L'Hommedieu
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you CAN make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all." (Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll)
Some clichés can't be overused enough. The above passage from Lewis Carroll's classic is one of them. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the American Presiding Bishop, has decided that a statement by Bishop William Wantland means the direct opposite of what his words clearly state.
He had stated in a letter to Schori that, having transferred his residence to the Province of the Southern Cone, he would like to avail himself of a long established policy of the American House of Bishops permitting him to be named an honorary member of that House.
He stated in his letter that his transfer to the Southern Cone in no way reflected his intention to resign or renounce his orders as a cleric ordained in the Episcopal Church. The Presiding Bishop took this to mean the direct opposite: that Wantland was now openly declaring his intention to renounce his orders. She dutifully conveyed the news of his "renunciation" to the House of Bishops listserv.
Her duties did not obligate her, however, to respond directly to Wantland at all. He discovered the news of his own "renunciation" on the Internet.
The question would appear to be whether Dr. Schori CAN make Wantland's words mean the opposite of what they say, and of course she can. She can because she did. She did because none of her peers had the will or the backbone to object. The precedent set now determines the meaning of the words. Bishop Wantland has, in effect, announced his resignation precisely through announcing he had no intention of so resigning, and this extorted resignation has the standing of law.
Conservatives have reacted with justifiable outrage, but their protests fall flat. They attributed Schori's action to duplicity and bad faith toward the Southern Cone, a sister Province of the Anglican Communion. Their accusations would have made sense in another time and would have carried at least some weight.
Today rationalists (those who believe that words mean what they say) must endure the scorn and ridicule once associated with the Flat Earth Society. Wantland's own written response to Schori contained no reasoned rebuttal but rather a string of insults (well deserved, in my view).
He accused her either of not understanding the plain meaning of English or else of deliberate malfeasance. He demonstrated the tragic naivete of a man who expected logic to define and delimit meaning, like a man flailing in the dark at an assailant whose footsteps he hears, whose breath warms the space in which he lunges and pivots, and yet, inexplicably, he is unable to land a blow. He is trapped in the nonsensical terror of a dream, desperately struggling to wake himself.
What's the moral of this latest misadventure of the TEC high command? That words mean what Power says they mean -- neither more nor less. It's a worn-out theme of postmodernists and the whole rabble of self-proclaimed malcontents, but coming from them it comes across as theater, not philosophy.
Schori and her cadre of elites are small players. They did not precipitate the dark turn of events that has left us in a meaningless world. Schori merely rides the crest of the wave of the surrounding culture. It would seem comical if it did not signal the death throes of a society.
Conservative Episcopalians elsewhere are taking awkward, semi-conscious steps across the terrain of this brave new world, trying to have a hand in influencing their own destiny.
At its recent annual convention the Diocese of Central Florida passed a resolution suggesting amendments to the proposed revisions of the Title IV canons on deposition and abandonment of communion that will come before the General Convention in Anaheim this summer.
The movers expressed concern with another Humpty Dumpty precedent set by Bishop Schori in calling for the vote to depose Bishop John-David Schofield early last year.
Following her chancellor's advice the Presiding Bishop interpreted the words "a majority of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote" to mean "a majority of the Bishops who happen to show up at the meeting".
Neither she nor her chancellor argued that the original words meant anything other than what they say -- that the whole number entitled to vote meant all the bishops wherever they happened to be. The chancellor merely observed that such an interpretation was "unworkable". That justified changing the meaning of the words to mean their opposite.
When the House of Bishops sat on their hands and allowed the ruling to stand, two things happened. First and most obvious, John-David Schofield's deposition was permitted to go forward even without the required vote.
Second and not so obvious, an ominous precedent was set: with the full authority of the House of Bishops the plain meaning of words could be adjusted to accommodate a ruling preferred by the Presiding Bishop.
"A majority of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote" now officially meant "the majority of the Bishops who happen to show up." The precedent is this: words mean what the one holding the cards says they mean -- neither more nor less.
The General Convention will take up this matter again in Anaheim to spell out the "latent meaning" of the Title IV canons. Again, this is a trivial example of something terrible that has occurred in our society that makes it possible for such incidents to become mundane in comparison.
When words mean only what the law declares them to mean, it is the end of rule by law and the beginning of rule by lawyers -- or, more specifically, by the few who are positioned to enforce the law. "Justice" is the first word to become meaningless when it is no longer based upon a shared vision that undergirds the law.
In such a time people shake their fists in despair, dumbstruck as they watch what they hold sacred pillaged before their eyes while they themselves are powerless to respond. Bishop Wantland's bitter reply to the Presiding Bishop conveys this despairing powerlessness.
Words should mean something. Principles ought to hold. Truth, even simple observed facts, ought to carry weight. When they don't, what's next? Where does the opposition aim its argument in the next round? What is the higher court before whom they make their appeal?
They can count on justice only from those judges who agree with them already -- neither more nor less.
---The Rev. Canon J. Gary L'Hommedieu is Canon for Pastoral Care at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Orlando, Florida, and a regular columnist for VirtueOnline.