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an essay for Anglicans Online
A Bishop's Estimate of the Situation
The House of Bishops of the American Episcopal Church met from March 16 to 21, 2007. We had before us a draft Covenant for the provinces of the Communion. We also ended with a disagreement between the American Bishops and the Primates’ Meeting, as expressed in our reply to their Communiqué.
Many bishops have issued fine statements about the meeting, a good deal of which have been collated here. Rather than try to add my own opinion about how the meeting went, I thought it might be helpful to try and place current events into a larger picture, and finish with recommendations for action. In the American military this is known as an “Estimate of the Situation.”
We are our past…
The present crisis has its roots well into the past, of course. One could begin with the story of the missionaries of the nineteenth century, who courageously evangelized people around the world. However, they did so not in the context of the local culture, but their own. They taught the Faith as if it were unchanging and unchangeable, not only in its doctrine but also in its moral teaching. As Roland Allen pointed out in his classic book, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, the missionaries changed their supposedly fixed morality from support of slavery to opposition to slavery. And it changed again, when birth control was allowed.
Until the mid-twentieth century, almost all the bishops in the Third World were Anglo-Saxons. When finally local Christians began taking charge of their churches, their Anglican moral heritage was already ambiguous, not only with the major hangover of colonialist hypocrisy itself, but with uncertainty about the foundation of moral teaching.
My predecessor here in Europe, Bishop Stephen Bayne, led in calling together an Anglican Congress in Toronto in 1963. The Congress endorsed a manifesto written by Michael Ramsey then Archbishop of Canterbury, and the other seventeen primates of the day, significantly entitled “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence.” As Bishop Bayne remarked at the time, “Some will have to cease thinking of the Church as a memorial association for a deceased clergyman called Christ.” Indeed. The new energy for mission that this manifesto unleashed led to the doubling of the numbers of the Communion within forty years, from forty million to eighty, and growing from eighteen provinces to the thirty-eight we have today.
As time has gone on, the extraordinary growth of the Communion is the cause of some chaos, as the First World culture in which the missionaries encased the Gospel has itself continued to evolve, while the Third World has progressively sought to “inculturate” the Good News. In other words, they have begun to re-think the Faith in terms of their own local cultures, which are not by any means homogeneous. Among other issues they have faced is the ambiguity of moral teaching, which was apparently immutable unless “the whites” decide to change it. Now local churches are asserting their own moral teaching, which can be on some issues quite different from what is held in the First World churches.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached his famous “I have a dream” speech to a spellbound nation virtually the same day the Anglicans issued the “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence” manifesto. The civil rights movement in the United States has been transforming America ever since, beginning with the work of undoing the legacy of slavery, which is still ongoing. But as African-Americans began to claim their rights, so too did women. Betty Friedan published her book The Feminine Mystique…in 1963. Six years later, the gay liberation movement came out after the Stonewall Inn riots in Greenwich Village.
While the energy unleashed in Toronto was transforming the Anglican Communion, that energy took different forms. It gave rise to powerful renewal movements of the dormant Low Church stream of Anglicanism, tinged with a Pentecostalist zeal in the charismatic movement. (This movement has since almost completely died out in the American church, but still has great energy elsewhere.) The same missional energy took a social form, as the Vietnam War, as well as the various civil rights movements, radicalized Episcopalians. By 1976 the American church had committed to affirmative action, approved the ordination of women (after Hong Kong and Canada), and affirmed that gay and lesbian people are “children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and pastoral concern and care of the Church” (1976 General Convention, Resolution A69).
At the same time, the energy unleashed by the Vatican II Council, especially following the death (in 1963, of course) of Pope John XXIII, gave a powerful impetus to liturgical renewal throughout the Christian Church. Already in the 1950s, studies of the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England and the Standing Liturgical Commission of the American Church had been recommending significant changes in a High Church direction to the existing Prayer Books of 1662 and 1928, respectively. In the Episcopal Church this led to the creation of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Other Prayer Books appeared around the Communion, including the influential bilingual New Zealand Book, the Church of England’s Common Worship series, and most recently the Modern Services Book of the Church of Kenya.
These liturgical developments represent some doctrinal shifts (how much is a matter of debate, if not to say polemics). New First World Prayer Books have tended to mine ancient liturgies for fresh material. Third World Books have tended to maintain some adherence to the model of the 1662 BCP. While the First World Anglicans have heeded the 1968 Lambeth Conference and relegated the Thirty-Nine Articles to the status of “historical documents,” elsewhere they have been maintained. The draft Covenant is essentially a Third World document in origin, and so it emphasizes the 1662 Book and the Thirty-Nine Articles.
In the past forty-four years, the Low Church party has been repristinated, the High Church is getting its way in matters liturgical, the Broad Church has plunged into the transformation of society. Two other developments have contributed to the explosion of boundaries: the emergence of radical theology symbolized by the publication in—when else? —1963 of Honest to God by Bishop John A. T. Robinson, and the development of ecumenical convergences.
All of these have engendered movements of reaction, of course. In the American context this has led conservatives trained in the organizing methods of the civil rights movement to try to develop alternative structures, reaching out in particular to Africa and Latin America for validation.
Important questions in the present:
Presently, all the tensions inherent to Anglicanism have been exacerbated:
• One shorthand description of Anglicans is that we are “reformed catholics.” We have always tried to include all of Christianity in our way of being Christian, representing our deep longing for a Church that is not only Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, but also One. This requires a balance between stifling dissent and lawlessness, an equilibrium we have usually not achieved. Protestants and Roman Catholics have enduring attitudes when push comes to shove about the Unity of the Church: the former see it as something secondary, to the point of thinking schism a good thing, the latter as overarching, to the point of setting up structures which enforce conformity above all else. The authentically Anglican instinct is to abhor both schism and autocracy. The present situation finds this fundamental instinct severely tempted.
• The apparent consensus that had grounded the Communion—Prayer Books in Tudor accents, “Oxbridge” theologians, Anglo-Saxon bishops—and led to the confidence to undertake “Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence” was already beginning to dissolve in 1963. All the old “landmarks” of Anglicanism, once taken for granted, have moved significantly since then. Now it is a truism that the “average” Anglican does not speak English, is under thirty years of age, and is a woman of color.
• The “parties” that have traditionally made up Anglicanism have changed. The re-invigoration of the Low Church party since 1963 has led to a renewed concern for standards of doctrinal coherence and moral purity. As former missions appropriate the Faith for themselves, this concern now wears the face of their local cultures. Meanwhile, significant developments along the same lines have occurred in England, Australia, and parts of the American church. Traditionally, this party has been tempted to define itself over against a corrupt “other”—the Established Church, the “papists,” the “heterodox,” each straw man re-invented in every age. The emergence of a school of radical “death-of-God” theology served to spur on this development, which has continued despite the demise of this school.
Meanwhile the High Church has seemed to content itself with reaching its liturgical goals, and wrestles with its great failing, which is accepting the status quo as long as the worship is done just so. The Broad Church in its notion of mission sometimes seems indistinguishable from secular non-governmental organizations.
It used to be said, “Low and lazy, High and crazy, Broad and hazy.” No more.
• The reason for the Church’s existence—its mission—is now defined in various ways, which in polemics are made to seem contradictory. The current generation of American leaders were children or adolescents in 1963, and grew up in the struggles for equality of black people, women, and gays and lesbians. Many, including the rising next generation, have defined their lives and ministry in terms of justice and peacemaking. Contrast this with the East African revival, for instance. The leadership there grew up with the powerful preaching and teaching of people like Bishop Festo Kivengere, sealed with the blood of thousands of martyrs like Archbishop Janani Luwum. Costly evangelism and discipleship, against dictators and fundamentalist Muslims, are the formative experiences there.
Why an emphasis on social sin and transformation should contradict an emphasis on personal sin and conversion is not clear, since Jesus demanded both. The problem is when one is made to exclude the other, as “liberal” or “pietistic.” However, the Church’s mission must include both emphases. Striking the balance is, again, the heart of the matter.
• As American culture has become the global standard, there has been an understandable counter-reaction (which Americans unfortunately tend to minimize). Trashing McDonald’s restaurants is a global phenomenon, for instance. Others see Americans through the lens of the television programs and films created by giant media companies. These exaggerate for dramatic or prurient effect, in order to attract audiences. Such fictional portrayals of the empty lives of selfish rich people aggravate the real effects of arrogant policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. It has become very tempting to make political hay by America-bashing. And when some Americans come hat in hand to ask humbly for help, saying they must turn to the faithful leaders of Africa, Asia or Latin America, the temptation to accept must be overwhelming.
The American church, having split among the fault lines described above, has exported its conflict. Now it has come back home in the form of the Anglican Mission in America and the Convocation of Nigerian Churches in America.
The prodigious growth of the Anglican Communion has not been matched by a growth in structure for mission. It is a serious misconception that mission is encumbered by structure. Church structures devoid of missional energy are redundant. Mission without structure leads to chaotic growth. One without the other leads invariably to death.
The Communion came into being without a plan. It so happened that the American colonists (most of them Tories) were cut off from the mother church and had to re-invent themselves as an independent Anglican church. It so happened that various missionary societies, English and American, sent out courageous missionaries to “make disciples among all nations.” As the Communion grew, with a respectful nod to the Archbishop of Canterbury, various new issues needed answers. For this the Lambeth Conferences were launched in 1867. It was clear then that the various Anglican churches considered themselves to be independent, and that such conferences were and have remained purely consultative in nature.
The 1963 Congress’ manifesto changed that. “The 18 branches of the Anglican Communion are proud of their independence—and last week the Anglican Congress in Toronto asked them to surrender some of it,” wrote Time Magazine in its August 30, 1963 issue. The recognition that the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lambeth Conferences were not enough to oversee the growth to come led to the creation of the Anglican Consultative Council, a body of lay, clergy, and episcopal representatives from the provinces. Still, while the structures for mission were cumulating, they remained consultative. In 1978 Archbishop Donald Coggan thought convening the Primates of each province regularly for some thought and prayer together would be helpful—though again, this meeting was to consult, not to govern.
Boundaries and barriers
Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori, in her first address to the Episcopal bishops as our new Presiding Bishop on March 16, 2007, opened with a reflection on boundaries. Her metaphor, drawn from her training as a biologist, was a cell membrane. Without a membrane to protect it, the cell cannot live. Yet if the membrane is not flexible or permeable enough, the cell also will die. In complex organisms, the unrestricted growth of cells is a tumor, which must be destroyed if it is not to kill the body.
The question today has boiled down to our boundaries as a Communion: who will define and enforce them?
This issue is not about homosexuality. Decisions for a global communion of churches require processes that the provinces trust and accede to. There are plenty of other thorny questions that will face or already face the Anglican Communion. The tensions between catholic and reformed, High Church and Low, universal and local, communal versus individual, global Western culture and embattled indigenous cultures, must be balanced or else the communion of the churches will fly apart permanently. These great issues do not pertain to Anglicans alone: the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran World Federation, and many other churches face them as well, and are equally straining against their centrifugal power. But at the moment, in this Estimate of the Situation, they appear most clearly among the Anglicans.
Being archbishops, metropolitans, obispos maximos, etc., the Primates perhaps understandably have drifted into filling the role of final arbiters. The previous Archbishop of Canterbury established a bit of a precedent when he intervened in the Church of Rwanda during the genocidal civil war in that country. The situation there was dire, with some bishops and clergy taking part in the genocide. In the first action of its kind, Canterbury asserted authority because there was none other to do so.
But the issue now is hardly on that scale. Yet some of the Primates, all too happy to find themselves empowered by conservative American lobbyists to deal with the small, rich Episcopal Church, have insisted that there is an emergency in the United States which requires their direct intervention. If the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot or will not agree, they have threatened to break communion with him.
Or course, there is no consensus globally that authorizes these particular primates, or the Primates’ Meeting for that matter, to make such decisions. The Lambeth Commission, set up to develop a way of working through the issues raised by changes in teaching and practice on homosexuality in the American and Canadian churches, set forth two years ago in its Windsor Report a number of conditions, to which the American church in particular was asked to respond. As the Episcopal Church has laboriously tried to do so, the Primates Meetings has seemed (to the bishops at least) to keep “moving the markers” set down in the Report.
Our House’s meeting
Finally we come to the present moment, from the “big picture” to the details. The February 2007 Primates’ Communiqué made several specific demands of the Episcopal bishops, to be met by September 30. The Communiqué asked for clarification of the bishops’ intentions to abide by the decisions of the 2006 and 2003 General Conventions not to accept the consecrations of other partnered gay bishops or create rites of same-sex blessings. Furthermore, it proposed appointing a pastoral council composed of two foreign bishops and two bishops appointed by the Presiding Bishop, chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which would oversee the ministry of a “primatial vicar,” a bishop to represent the Presiding Bishop to seven of the church’s one hundred ten dioceses and parishes in other dioceses that do not accept her ministry.
Ephraim Radner, a conservative Episcopal theologian appointed to the newly-formed Covenant Design Group, in an address to the bishops said that everything boils down to trust. He presented the Covenant process as a way to create trust again. He is of course quite right—trust is the basic issue. However, there have been many developments, some even during the meeting, which contributed to eroding trust.
First, the American Church has been held to the standards of Lambeth I.10 and the Windsor Report, which some of those demanding a reckoning from us have themselves ignored:
• Some provinces have given full support and encouragement in their respective nations to draconian legislation criminalizing people for being gay which has been unanimously condemned by the world’s human-rights organizations, in blatant disregard of the Lambeth resolution we are accused of violating. Had the Primates’ Communiqué addressed this firmly, it would have had much greater credibility.
• Some primates and other foreign bishops since 2000 have been coming into our dioceses (and Italy as well) despite requests from the respective diocesans that they should not. They have wreaked havoc by setting up illicit non-geographical jurisdictions and making grandiose promises to clergy and people, thus violating not only the Windsor Report conditions (para. 155), but also the unanimous practice of Anglicans, and indeed the Church Catholic since the First Council of Nicea.
(We would all do well to remember the Lord’s instruction: before removing the speck of sawdust from your brother or sister’s eye, pay attention to the great wooden log in your own (Mt. 7:3-5; Lk 6: 41-42).)
Second, the Communiqué seemed to “move the markers” again, by sweeping aside the scheme set up by the bishops for dissenting congregations (“delegated episcopal pastoral oversight,” which the Windsor Report had commended) in favor of this council. There was no appreciation that the Constitution of the Episcopal Church requires unconditionally that any clergy exercising within the church must swear to “conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship” of the Church (Article VIII). Can people reasonably demand something of a bishop which he or she has no power to grant, and then complain about the bishop’s unwillingness to work with them?
The first day the bishops convened to consider the Communiqué (March 16) was also announced as the last day for nominations to fill the pastoral council, as if the Episcopal bishops had already acquiesced to it. Perhaps it was thought that Bishop Katharine had agreed to the scheme, which in any event she has no authority to do. In fact, she reported (and others can confirm) that she only agreed to take it to her House of Bishops.
Third, despite a report from their own Standing Committee that the Episcopal Church through its General Convention had accepted the restrictions on it required by the Windsor Report, the Primates seemed to demand more assurances. And the Communiqué threatened implicitly that if the bishops did not accede to all its demands, the setting up of alternative jurisdictions within the American province would continue unabated.
Further erosion of trust occurred when it was learned that the Archbishop of Uganda was in Los Angeles during our meeting to administer confirmation in three of the diocese’s congregations. The Bishop of Los Angeles asserted that he had written “twenty to thirty” letters to him, none of which had received the favor of a reply.
A report from bishops working on the matter of property disputes produced several documents from the Anglican Communion Network, an organization specifically set up to promote the replacement of the Episcopal Church, which works closely with those Primates who have taken it upon themselves to “fix” us. These outlined plans for the subversion of the Church from within. The last document reportedly had the phrase, “Wage guerilla warfare in the Episcopal Church,” allegedly in the hand of the Network’s Moderator, Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh.
In light of these provocations, I think our Statement was quite moderate, though some of the language sounds a bit jingoist (“liberation from colonialism” is not how most Church of England colonists saw the American Revolution). In all our resolutions, we affirmed our deep desire to remain within the Anglican Communion, while declining to participate in a scheme we had no authority to accept, a plan which would have de facto grounded the schism some long to see.
September 30 and beyond
While our Theology Committee works to produce some teaching materials for the church’s consideration, we bishops shall mull over how to respond to the other demands of the Primates Communiqué when we meet again in September. Clearly the majority believes already that we have satisfied the principal requests of the Windsor Report. The General Convention has spoken in 2003 and 2006 concerning same-sex blessings and consecrations of partnered gays. There can be no official rites of blessing until at least 2015, since, in our polity, only General Convention has the power to create such. It seems doubtful that a partnered gay bishop-elect of the near future would receive enough consents for consecration.
In this long article, I have sought to place the present moment within the larger historical framework. It seems to me that a number of things must happen to move us away from the schism so many believe is inevitable.
First, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the rest of the Primates Standing Committee should accept to meet with the American bishops. The Archbishop should speak his mind, as well as the other Primates, and then listen as well; we bishops should listen and respectfully speak our minds. There is a Covenant to design together, and soon other issues will exercise the Communion—let us set the tone now.
Second, there are many signs that a large majority in the Communion does not want to see either the American Episcopal Church driven out of the Communion or the Primates Meeting become the final arbiter in Communion-wide issues. Neither schism nor autocracy will do for Anglicans. That majority needs to make its will known. Everyone will lose if either alternative wins out.
Third, I believe that the church in general, and the House of Bishops in particular, have heard the message loud and clear: we are mutually responsible to one another, and interdependent. 1963 is already a long time ago, and there is no going back. While individual provinces in the final analysis need to do what they believe is right, we always need to inform and discuss before acting. In any event bishops are not regional administrators, but, as the Ordinal declares, are responsible for leadership of the Church throughout the world.
Moreover, our House of Bishops has been since the Pike case unwilling to discipline its members for anything other than sexual misconduct. In saying this I mean on all sides: what we have no power to do or allow we should not do or allow. The result is that we have been contributing to the general sense of laissez-faire, of “anything goes,” not only allowing chaos, but also showing no love for the one who needs disciplining. I am not advocating anything more proper canonical and rubrical restraint and the even-handed application of our existing discipline. Bishops have a special responsibility to administer the discipline of the Church. We need to start with ourselves.
Lastly, the Anglican Communion has a ways to go yet in developing the structures appropriate to its global mission, which alone would continue to allow Anglicanism to thrive as a genuine way of living as Christians. The inherited ambiguity about moral teaching requires serious sustained consideration, as our ecumenical partners have also told us. So do other, very different issues like lay presidency at the Eucharist and giving communion to the unbaptized.
I believe that in order to do this work, not to mention the greater mission of the Church, we need to ponder anew the truth upheld and expressed clearly by the greatest Episcopalian, John Henry Hobart. The Christian must hear the Gospel and respond; that response is to be grafted into the Church, from whence he or she will then go forth as a witness of Christ to the ends of the earth. We cannot have only the Gospel, and no ordered community of faith, for that is chaos. We cannot have an ordered church, from which no Good News is proclaimed in word and deed to a desperate world, for that is death. “Evangelical Truth and Apostolic Order” is how the great Bishop described it. In this perennial dialectic the individual and communal can be reconciled; the Low Church, Broad Church and High Church weaknesses corrected and their strengths affirmed; personal sin and social sin judged and their remedy prescribed and applied. The power of the Spirit is experienced, and together, in debate and argument over Scripture, leavened by heartfelt common prayer, we come to have the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2:12-16). Call it a covenant, call it what you will, if we can find a way to do this, we shall be blessed indeed.
This is the hard road in which we are all called together to walk. It lies in no broad plain. This road is rather a narrow mountain pass that leads from an old creation to a new one. There is none other, and there are precipices all around.
Whether we take it or not will determine not only the present situation, but also the future of Anglicanism, and in some small measure, the future of the Christian Church.
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at email@example.com.