On Anglican Disunion

Jack Miles writes in Commonweal about the essential nature of Anglican Communion, reflecting on his life in the pew of an Episcopal Church and learning about the strange evolution of the Lambeth Conference since its inception.

After reading the four-part series on the history of the Conference in his Sunday bulletin, he learned that the first conference was called only with reluctance and ten years later there was still suspicion of a creeping structuralism among churches that were seen as having a common heritage but different polities.

One learned that the initial impulse for the Lambeth Conference only came in 1867 and then from Canadian Anglicans uneasy over their country’s evolution toward independence from Britain. If Canada became fully independent, would the Church of Canada, against its wishes, be forced to become the Canadian equivalent of the Episcopal Church in the United States? Reluctantly, the archbishop of Canterbury agreed to hold a meeting, but he insisted that it would seek only “brotherly counsel and encouragement.”

Miles notes that the pastoral pronouncements of the decennial conference tended to follow the pastoral realities of the several churches rather than guide them. At the same time, the need for a deciding authority began to creep in.

During the twentieth century, however, the issues of divorce, remarriage, intermarriage, contraception, and the status of women in the church-all of which fell plausibly within the avowedly pastoral purview of the Lambeth Conference-replaced almost completely such classic doctrinal issues as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in determining whether one was or was not a communicant in good standing. Thus, when the 1900 conference ruled that only the “innocent party” to a divorce might be readmitted to Communion after a civil marriage, it did tacitly claim a right to determine who was an Anglican.

As the years went by, the statements of the Lambeth Conference became more permissive, following no doubt the experience of the member churches.

In matters of sexuality and church discipline, the path of the Lambeth Conference through the twentieth century was, as Webber summarizes it, a long, slow walk to the left climaxed by a sudden lurch to the right in 1998. As late as 1920, the conference went so far as to link “the open or secret sale of contraceptives and the continued existence of brothels.” But qualifications began to creep in at the 1930 and 1948 conferences, and in 1958 a resolution boldly declared that family planning is “a right and important factor in Christian family life,” a position reaffirmed in 1968 with explicit reference to the then just-issued papal encyclical Humanae vitae.

Lambeth was responding rather than dictating to the faithful regarding contraception, but had this not, broadly speaking, been its founding, pastoral intent? During the 1970s, when a long-running Anglican debate over the ordination of women was preempted by their actual ordination in Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and the United States, the response of the 1978 conference, consistently enough, was to affirm “the legal right of each church to make its own decision” in this matter. In 1988, it took the identical position with regard to the ordination of women to the episcopate.

We all know what happened next. The 1988 Conference, which called “for deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality” anticipating a gradual loosening of traditional strictures, knowing that change would only come slowly and in a few churches, gave way to highly divided and politicized 1998 conference. The passage (and selective reading) Lambeth 1.10 signaled the start of a transformed communion when very conservative Western and Central African province allied with conservative minorities in the West.

So what does Miles see as the road ahead?

What lies ahead? GAFCON seems bent on becoming a strong vehicle for church governance, a kind of standing quasi-ecumenical council for Anglicans who want one. Williams, for his part, in remarks made at the end of the Lambeth Conference in August, seemed to foresee a milder version of the same thing for the communion over which he still presides-namely, the formulation of a “covenant,” by subscribing to which constituent churches would accept or decline membership. In his concluding address, Williams said: “a covenanted future…has the potential to make us more a church; more of a ‘catholic’ church in the proper sense, a church, that is, which understands its ministry and service as united and interdependent around the world.”

But do the world’s Anglicans, leaving aside the GAFCON Afro-Anglicans and their American supporters, really want to be “more a church”? In precise and dry language, an editorial appearing August 15 in the (Anglican) Church of Ireland Gazette says no. “It is important to emphasize,” the editorial avers, “that the Anglican Communion is not, as Dr. Williams did at least suggest in his statement, a church. It is a communion of churches,” while “the Lambeth conference is, precisely, a conference. It is not a synod.” Accordingly, Lambeth has no governing authority, and “members are free to attend or to ‘boycott,’ as they wish.” Such would not be the case if they did have a role in governance.

In short, no greater Anglican Church, therefore no schism within the church. This classic view of Anglican polity, rooted ultimately in the city- and region-based ecclesial polity of the early church, has the clear backing of the Episcopal Church. Its roots are deep enough among Anglicans around the world that it will surely still be a live option at the end of the coming ten full years of debate about the still-to-be-written covenant. Shifting demographics alone are no more likely to dislodge so strong a habit of mind than shifting demographics alone are likely to dislodge any other strongly rooted first-world institution.

The discovery that the West African (notably not South African) Anglicans, who now so hugely outnumber Euro-American Anglicans, are militantly conservative regarding homosexuality and solascripturalist regarding church authority has led conservative American Episcopalians who share these views into an occasionally giddy enthusiasm. Church historian Philip Jenkins, himself a theological and political conservative in a mainstream Episcopal congregation, put it thus at a press conference under the auspices of the Pew Forum:

Just think of the rhetorical, political advantages of being aware that this [demographic dominance by the global South] is the future of Christianity. “We are allying ourselves not with the decadent, Northern world, but with the future of the church.” Think of the advantages that gives you, if you’re trying to put on a spokesperson for a conservative cause, and the person you put on is an African or an Asian who is going to present the issue in terms of fighting cultural imperialism. Oh boy, that’s good. Politically, that’s enormously powerful.

But is it? Powerful where? Powerful for or against whom? The question brings me back to my pew at St. Edmund’s. Ours is a well-to-do church in a Republican suburb with, as it happens, a well-liked, politically moderate to compassionately conservative gay rector, the Rev. George F. Woodward III, whose sexual orientation, known to all for some years now, has ceased to be a topic of conversation. I have long sensed that even politically conservative Episcopalians tend to be nonchalant about homosexuality, and my hunch was confirmed by the June 2008 Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey. Episcopalians are 26 percent liberal, 43 percent moderate, and 27 percent conservative in general political preference; but when it comes to homosexuality, 70 percent choose “should be accepted,” while only 23 percent choose “should be discouraged.” In short: politically conservative or moderate, socially liberal, and in that mix probably ahead of the curve. All surveys, after all, show that younger Americans are more tolerant of homosexuality than older Americans; few show any durable shift to the political left. Ten years from now, how many Episcopalians will want to exchange the security of local governance for the perils of remote governance by an Africa-dominated council-all to escape the peril of gay marriage and gay ordination?

Read the rest here.

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