#3 Surprise gift from our Anglican divorce story for life beyond it

by Donald Schell

Part 3 of 3

I’ll begin this concluding essay by saying where I meant the meandering path of the two previous essays to lead. I’m thinking of our church’s divorce story, our independence from Rome, as family story. And I’m seeing something in it that I’d never noticed, in a small event in 1532, that leads me to wonder whether Episcopal Church’s 2012 reorganization should include eliminating any separate “House of Bishops” (BOTH the legislative house at General Convention and the year-in and year- out twice annual non-legislative gatherings).

What if our bishops found their primary identity, voice and purpose from listening to the people of their diocese rather than from speaking to each other?

What happened at my parents’ Thanksgiving Table in 1963 and at the Captain’s Table with Ted Cozzens on that steamer that’s harder when the whole diverse family isn’t gathered?

To be clear at the onset, let me insist, I’m making the suggestion that we restore rather than reject the ancient office of bishop. And, when we get there I’ll offer a choice anecdote from our Anglican family’s founding divorce that hints at an unfamiliar primary identity for a bishop.

So, first the divorce story and some observations of how we shape our stories –

Henry VIII needed a divorce from Katherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. When the Pope and Vatican were slow to respond, Henry decided to file for a different divorce severing the Church of England from the Catholic Church. Rome didn’t acknowledge the divorce and insisted that Henry and his church were simply living in sin. Rome’s response didn’t stop a property settlement, or at least didn’t stop us taking what we’d like. We kept our bishops and liturgy (taking the opportunity of the divorce to clean house and remodel it significantly) and we happily let them keep their Pope, clerical celibacy, purgatory, transubstantiation, and scores of problematic saints.

I hope this telling made most Episcopal readers squirm a bit. The story is more or less familiar, but that’s not the way we want it told in public. Over our last four hundred and fifty or so years of up and down communication with our Italian ex- and some custody battles over various children, and property battles over various family treasures and traditions, our critics have told the story more or less like I just did. You know those critics – theologians, cultural critics, fundamentalist neighbors, and a handful of grumpy atheists who want to tell us that our divorce wasn’t legitimate, that we’re a fake church, a believe-anything or believe-nothing outfit that practices aesthetics and manners rather than real faith. Today’s atheists tell us we’re not actually religious so not worth disputing. And our fundamentalist sisters and brothers insist that since the divorce we’ve been living in sin.

So, I think we’re actually as particular about how we tell our ecclesial divorce as any family member would be about any decisive family story.

No, we insist, it’s not like that.

We want to tell our divorce story and hear integrity and continuity. Yes, there was a divorce, but we’re a real church, and we were the same church before and after Henry VIII. In fact we needed to file for the divorce to continue Catholic Christianity in Britain. Our ancestors are honorable and we, their descendants, aren’t bastards. We’re the legitimate inheritors of rich Celtic and Benedictine traditions in the British Isles, the church of Patrick and Columba and the Venerable Bede, Dame Julian of Norwich, St. Margaret of Scotland, several important medieval theologians and philosopher-scientists, the church of Cranmer, Coverdale, Shakespeare, Dorothy Sayers, and T.S. Eliot, and so on.

Our church’s separate existence, as we usually tell the story, wasn’t born of Henry VIII’s lust and royal whim but of the principle or conscience of Catholic and Reforming Church bishops like Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley, and the heroic Biblical translator William Tyndale (these last all martyrs).

Recently I had a rich and satisfying conversation with a clergy colleague who, like me, knew divorce personally. My divorce was almost forty years ago, his more like six. Both of us recognized how carefully we told our stories. Partly we’re fussy about how we tell the story to protect our sense of who we were and are. But partly we want to keep learning from the divorce. We want to know we’re continuing to become more who we hoped to be and were called to be even with the divorce. Like other family stories, divorce stories shape us.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading Hilary Martel’s Wolf Hall with pleasure in the novel and fresh interest in our family divorce story. So, I’m reading again about Henry VIII and Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. Mantel packed historical facts tightly into her novel, some familiar, some less so. I’m doing a lot of fact-checking and ancillary reading. Reading Martel’s novel is a painful pleasure because there our 16th century divorce story is as messy and contradictory as any family divorce story, and because I’m grateful for it’s unexpected grace. I love the church that emerged from our watershed transformation in the 16th century. And I come back to this story as I return sometimes to my long past divorce. Telling and retelling bring new discoveries. Martel has worked with recognizable and known facts and re-imagined some key characters in our story including especially Thomas Cromwell, the layman who may have contributed more than any other single person to the beginnings of the English Reformation.

Cromwell got the King’s consent to the first legal publication of England’s first English Bible. Cromwell drafted the laws that made Cranmer’s work possible. Cromwell gently guided his traditionalist Catholic except “without the Pope” monarch toward reform and change. Cromwell, with strong Lutheran sympathies managed to maintain a friendship with the King until a decade before the first English Prayer Book, Cromwell lost the King’s trust and his head.

Three hundred thirty-seven pages into her novel of Cromwell’s accomplishment, Martel offers this startling little paragraph:

“On May 15, the bishops sign a document of submission to the king. They will not make new church legislation without the king’s license, and will submit all existing law to a review by a commission which will include laymen – members of Parliament and the king’s appointees. They will not meet in Convocation without the king’s permission.”

The year was 1532, a full year before Pope Clement excommunicated Henry VIII and Archbishop Cranmer. The act of Parliament that the bishops were compelled to sign was drafted by Thomas Cromwell.

This unfamiliar bit of our family’s divorce story caught my imagination. Cromwell came up with something here that may be important to us in 2012 as our Episcopal Church thinks about re-ordering and re-organizing itself. Apart from the royalist assumptions and prerogatives that Cromwell assumed or created here, he reversed a precedent-setting initiative that the Emperor Constantine set 1200 years before when he called the Council of Nicaea. Constantine needed a unified church to bind together his quasi-Christianized Roman Empire – he proposed that a consensus of bishops could define the faith and practice of the church. The bishops had no difficulty accepting Constantine’s flattering gesture though they had a harder time agreeing about homoousios or homoiousios in the creed that they drafted.

Thomas Cromwell’s legislation and document made bishops dependent on lay people convening them and gave lay people final review over bishops’ decisions. Does Cromwell’s bold redefinition of the authority of bishops remind us that Constantine giving unprecedented ultimate authority to what bishops gathered together would say, invented a Council of Bishops? When bishops gather to deliberate and speak – not just the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals but even our own Church of England and American Episcopal House of Bishops – are they carrying on Constantine’s imperial consolidation of power?

Cromwell’s legislation surrounded bishops’ authority with lay convening and lay review. For four hundred fifty years bishops have been reclaiming their self-generated authority and autonomy. Many of them tell us that their most important conversations are in gatherings with their bishop sisters and brothers. So Cromwell has me wondering – would our bishops act more like the church bishops of the ancient church if we did away with the House of Bishops?

When Ignatius gave us his vision of the wholeness and universality of a church in the early Second Century, he summed it up with a word no Christian teacher before him had used, “Catholic,” a thing that’s seen and known in its wholeness, entire, complete.

“Wheresoever,” Ignatius wrote, “the bishop appears, there let the people [laos] be, even as wheresoever Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” People gathered around their bishop are whole and the Body of Christ. Two hundred years later Constantine shifted the understanding of Catholic to an Imperial one. In seminary we had a kind of riddle about bishops in council – “If IRA terrorists blew up all the Anglican bishops gathered at Lambeth, would there still be an Anglican Communion?”

Constantine looked to consolidate and organize power. His council that got all the local bishop administrator/leaders together was meant to ADD UP TO a Catholicity that Ignatius said already existed with ONE bishop surrounded by the people. The gathered Eucharistic Assembly was Ignatius whole (KATHOLIKOS) vision of Christ.

Since Constantine, gathered bishops have spoken Episcopal authority with their common voice. From Constantine onward, the bishop and bishops have seemed to believe they’re most Episcopal when they’re speaking – pastoral letters, writing admonitions, preaching.

Here’s how our 1979 Book of Common Prayer puts it in the ordination liturgy for a bishop:

“A bishop in God’s holy Church is called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and interpreting the Gospel, and to testify to Christ’s sovereignty as Lord of lords and King of kings. You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ. With your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world. Your heritage is the faith of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and those of every generation who have looked to God in hope. Your joy will be to follow him who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 517.

We call bishops to ministry and they gather to find their voice for Proclaiming, Interpreting, Testifying, and Guarding. They express their ministry in what they say and in their guardianship overseeing faith, unity, and discipline.

More often than he used the word “Catholic” Ignatius said something that has baffled commentators and been ignored by most bishops ever since – that the bishop is most a bishop when he is silent.

As Henry Chadwick wrote, “Among the many remarkable features of Ignatius’ letters there is perhaps nothing more curious than his peculiar ideas about the value attaching to silence. There is something almost comic in his insistence that when a bishop is saying nothing he is then to be regarded with special awe. It is apparently his firm conviction that the best thing a bishop can do is to refrain from speech altogether.”

Silence? Listening? Waiting? Presence in listening silence reminds me of Jesus in John 8 writing silently in the sand when the religious leaders demanded that he condemn the woman taken in adultery. Or as Ignatius says,

“He who really possess Jesus’ word is able to hear his silence in order that he may be perfect, so that he may act through his words and may be known through his silences.”

Part 2

Part 1

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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