Anglican Equilibrium

By Andrew Gerns

Four years ago, even one year ago, did you ever think we would hear these words?

“We are facing something that we never thought we would face. We thought we would prevail. We thought that what we believed and what the majority of the Communion believed would be provided for.”

This is what Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh and Moderator of the Anglican Communion Network told the Standing Committee, Board of Trustees and Diocesan Council of his diocese last May 21st.

This is a startling admission from a man who is at the center of the organized resistance to the authority of the Episcopal Church. Not so much a statement of surrender, it signals a risky moment for the bishops, clergy, laity and congregations who have hitched their wagons to the idea of a new separate or parallel American Anglican Province who suddenly find themselves on a different landscape than a year ago.

Last month, the leaders of the diocese weighed four options which accurately reflect the choices ahead for the conservative/reasserter movement. A news release from the Diocese says that Pittsburgh could:

1. “… simply keep doing what it has been doing, remaining on the periphery of The Episcopal Church, but not attempting to reach a concluding moment in the conflict.

2. “… submit to the will of the Episcopal Church in its majority, reversing the diocesan convention’s actions over the last four years.

3. “… attempt to separate as a diocese from The Episcopal Church, an option a number of Anglican Communion Network dioceses are considering.

4. “… attempt to create space for conserving parishes to negotiate an exit from the diocese.”

After the retreat, Bishop Duncan called for a meeting to take place after the House of Bishops meeting with the Most Rev. Rowan Williams in September. This so-called Common Cause meeting will be a gathering of Bishops from Anglican Communion Network, the Anglican Mission in the Americas (including the Anglican Coalition in Canada), the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, the Anglican Network in Canada, the Anglican Province of America, Forward in Faith North America and the Reformed Episcopal Church. The meeting will take place in Pittsburgh on September 25-28. The groups are expecting an outright rejection of the entire Dar es Salaam communiqué from last February including the supplemental “Schedule” by the House of Bishops, and some sort of compromise to be struck when Archbishop Williams and the American bishops finally meet face-to-face.

It looks for all the world as if the heart of the conservative/reasserter movement is getting ready to leave the Episcopal Church with or without the blessing of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The action could be the creation of an Anglican-heritage coalition in the USA or the precursor of a separate, smaller, Anglican-related gathering of provinces who will stay away from the 2008 Lambeth conference.

In the meantime, other important leaders of the reasserter movement have urged caution and are making the case for staying within the Episcopal Church.

The Anglican Communion Institute, Inc., cautions conservatives not to act too harshly. The Rev. Dr. Ephrahim Radner writes:

There are clearly those who want to declare the Lambeth Conference conciliarly ineffective, and to depose it from (or deny it) any conciliar role, even before it convenes. A question to be asked of these people is whether they want to declare themselves, before the fact, as letting go of the charismatic calling of the Church. For, in the context of the Christian faith and the Church’s life, they need not do so. “Talking down” the Conference or deliberately absenting oneself from it may or may not undermine the authority of Lambeth (indeed, depending on how it is done, it may in fact enhance it!). But if it so undermines it, it also may well undermine the authority of those who deliberately reject the Conference itself. For such preemptive rejection will cloud the eagerness, trouble the faith, dampen the fire, quench the Spirit.

Radner advocates a conciliar model that is strong on episcopal authority, but does not see synods where laity and clergy have a strong voice as necessarily conciliar in nature. His latest essay is a caution against those who would out of hand dismiss Lambeth because the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church has been invited, even though Bishop Robinson of New Hampshire won’t be among the regular guests. He seems to be warning particularly Global South primates not to adhere too closely to their Road to Lambeth documents because they may, inadvertantly, grant more authority to Lambeth by their absence and lose their ability to influence the future direction of the Communion.

As Mark Harris has pointed out:

Radner is quite right to point out that there are no guarantees that any meeting of bishops will be anything more than just a meeting. What gives councils their authority is not their membership, not their words alone, and certainly not the political use to which the words are put, but something more, the acceptance of this or that statement it makes as increasingly informative by the whole church. (Think, for example about how the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral has taken on added value over the years.)

Still, Radner is so sympathetic to and passionate about the notion that the Episcopal Church has erred so egregiously that it ought not to be invited to pan-Anglican gathering that many assume he invented that stand. That isn’t the case, nor is this exclusion likely in the wake of Williams’ decision to invite all Episcopal bishops, except Robinson, to the Lambeth Conference. ACI, Inc. understands this and wants conservative/reasserters to hang on and stick together. Radner’s caution is very significant but it remains to be seen if it will be heeded.

So what happened? After more than four years of wrangling, what has caused the reasserters’ movement to come to this crossroad?

The relationships are so complex and the issues so nuanced that it is hard to pin down one cause, and I do not believe that the Communion is out of the woods on this matter by any stretch. Moderates in search of peace and progressives in hopes of victory, both of whom may be seeing glimmers of some kind of resolution, could still be surprised. This movement still has legs and could coalesce seemingly without notice. Still, I want to highlight some changes to the landscape that suggest that we are on different ground than we were a year or even six months ago.

News of the invitations to Lambeth was certainly a shock to the reasserters’ movement. For CANA, AMIA and a similar set-up in Brazil to be ignored deprived these groups of Anglican legitimacy. They have in one stroke been reduced to splinter groups or hangers-on. Pervious attempts to set up para-Anglican jurisdictions in the United States have either failed or had minimal success because they are not in communion with Canterbury. The heart of this latest movement was to capture or at least retain Anglican bona-fides in the U.S. and Canada. The initial invitations to Lambeth have scuttled that.

There is no energy from either Lambeth nor the bulk of the Primates to impose a structure on a member of the communion against its will. Christopher Seitz, Philip Turner and Radner, who make up ACI, Inc., asked why the Primates and Canterbury haven’t simply carried out what was tasked to them?

1. The Primates still have warrant to make their appointments to the Pastoral Council. Why have they not done so?

2. The Archbishop of Canterbury still has the authority to make his appointment to the Pastoral

Council. Why has he not done so?

3. The Presiding Bishop of TEC still has authority to make her appointment to the Pastoral Council. Why has she not done so?

4. The Windsor Bishops still have warrant to make their nominations for Primatial Vicar. Why have they not done so?

We believe that the credibility of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Meeting of the Primates, the Presiding Bishop of TEC, and the Windsor Bishops depends upon a speedy answer to these four questions.

Some hint may be found in part in the statement of Latin American Bishops including three Primates who met at the same time at the diocesan leadership in Pittsburgh. Calling themselves the Global Center, and building on a statement written in Panama in 2005, the group acknowledges theological differences within the group and within the communion. They indicate that they also were less than thrilled with developments in the U.S. and Canada in 2002 and 03; on the other hand, they say “we have also experienced that the plurality and diversity we represent has become a rich source for growth, rather than a cause for controversy and division.”

This group of bishops and primates criticize “the polarization regarding the biblical and theological positions manifested in the Anglican Communion, during the last years; positions known as Global North and Global South, non reconcilable in their character and putting the unity in the Communion at risk.”

And so, these Bishops refuse to play. They want to be identified as neither Global South or North but “as disciples of Jesus, called to live out the mandate of love (St. John 15:17), we declare our commitment to be together and with all our strength, struggle for unity, as an act of obedience to His will expressed in the Holy Scriptures.” It is telling that the Church Times, which might have received this document a few years ago with a yawn, now sees it a breath of fresh air.

The Spanish-speaking Global Center shows that indeed “the church is flat,” as Bishop Minns and others have been saying, just not in the way they thought.

There are many answers to ACI, Inc.’s four questions, including polity and diplomatic answers but this document may be the most telling. No one has acted on these “warrants” because no one has a heart to. And if Primates don’t want to impose on others what might be imposed someday on themselves, if it feels to most Bishops and Primates that they are being drawn into a fight that is not theirs and is a distraction to boot, then it’s no wonder that there has been no action on the Key Recommendations of the Communiqué.

Recent court actions may have taken some of the romance out of the movement as well. The original plan was to bleed the Episcopal Church dry one expensive legal cut at a time. The reverse may be true. Recent rulings in South Carolina and Florida have shown that to simply build a new Anglican province on the property and assets of the old may not work. Bishops, Standing Committees and their chancellors have discovered that the responsibilites imposed on them by their respective states, let alone the constitution, canons and oaths at ordination, don’t simply go away because dissidents want them to.

Some reasserters resent the fact that the Episcopal Church had defended its polity and property in court, but just as earlier ideas of “just letting them go” on the part of progressives was deemed unhelpful, so are notions of simply ignoring civil and church law just to make peace. Both ideas are destructive to common life and future mission.

Another development that has hampered the movement to realign the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion is improved communications by those who support the actions of our General Convention. For a long time, it seemed as if the only people talking about the Episcopal Church were people who were angry at it. Our Church was very slow in discovering and then acting on the revolution in communication via the Internet, and resistant to the idea that one has to be organized in the face of organized opposition. The growing number of Episcopal blogs on every side of the aisle, and the advent of epiScope, Episcopal Life OnLine and the Episcopal Café, means that the Internet table has grown. There is a nearly instantaneous response to every development and every claim from every side and this has both leveled and moderated the playing field considerably.

Finally, how long can a movement sing a one-note chant? Since the turn of this century, these groups have coalesced around human sexuality, particularly the blessing of same-sex relationships and the consecration of Gene Robinson. But how long will these groups be able to put aside their own theological diversity in the name of anger over a bishop? How long can a movement of Anglicans with differing views of worship, discipline, the ordination of women, and with different cultures hold together around one issue and ignore other issues that affect their future together? Either the groups will fly apart along cultural, doctrinal and jurisdictional lines or else they will have to find their unity in their diversity.

Looking back over their history, I think the reasserter/conservative movement had a vision which drove them to set big goals but, of necessity, they looked past the fact that it is in the nature of systems to resist change and yet maintain their own momentum. Any system will work towards equilibrium. Very seldom is this equilibrium ideal; rather it is sustained by compromise. Any system big or small, has to come to terms with the fact that injuries exist in the system, and in fact become part of the system.

One can make the case that the Elizabethan Settlement froze a conflict in time and we have been paying the price ever since. Attempts to undo the compromise, from violent revolution–the Puritan Commonwealth– to renewal movements, such as the Evangelical Revival and the Oxford Movement, have failed to dislodge the basic elements of the compromise. The elements of common worship, a sense of being in communion even in our diversity, and an understanding that our oneness in Christ transcends human notions of unity are at the heart of what might be called Anglican Equilibrium.

Anglicanism is important not just because it is the third largest Christian body in the world, but also because of the style of Christian unity Anglicanism models: it is based neither on doctrine nor on central authority but on communion.

We cannot get away from the question that was the heart of the Windsor Report, how can a body that understands itself as a communion hold itself together if individual member churches do things that the rest of the Churches disapprove of. Attempts to answer that question strictly on a structural basis have proved wanting. Attempts to tinker with the structure to solve a momentary crisis or to somehow bludgeon the Communion into submission also seem likely to fail.

The movement has, at least for this moment, run out of steam because of the hard lessons of communion over many centuries. Either we choose to come together in the name of Jesus Christ, or we choose to stay apart. What we are learning is that not only is Communion a gift from God, it is an act of the will. Whether these groups stay at the table or leave will depend on each one’s tolerance for ambiguity as we all try to live the Gospel together in a complex world.

The Rev. Andrew Gerns is the rector of Trinity Church, Easton, Pa., and chair of the Evangelism Commission of the Diocese of Bethlehem. He keeps the blog Andrew Plus.

Past Posts