Power politics, Anglican style

By Richard E. Helmer

Now that GAFCON is under way and the machinations of schism roll forward, the Anglican blogosphere is replete with claims and counterclaims about its rectitude. With the widely publicized failure for archbishops to cross the Jordan on the eve of the conference, GAFCON itself seems to be the latest manifestation of an effort to stay in the news. Watching schism unfold draws reporters and pundits like moths to a light. And with them come the dollars from many with an axe to grind about the Church, theologically or otherwise. From that, in no small measure, GAFCON and its architects draw their power.

I was personally drawn to reflect when Mark Harris recently reflected on this piece from Pittsburgh’s Bishop, Robert Duncan, in an opening address at the GAFCON conference:

“Archbishop Williams remarked at the beginning of the Dar es Salaam Primates Meeting: ‘It is all a question of who blinks first.’ Neither the American orthodox, nor the Global

South Primates, nor history would blink. Not then, not now. The so-called ‘blink’ has taken place, but it has taken place in the re-definition of the Lambeth Conference as a place of managed conversation, not conciliar decision, and in the recognition that to call the Primates Meeting together ever again would be to confirm that the Communion’s engine has shifted to the South. Re-defining the Lambeth Conference and not calling the Primates Meeting are exercises of colonial control. But the inexorable shift of power from Britain and the West to the Global South cannot be stopped, and some conciliar instrument reflective of the shift is bound to emerge as the Reformation Settlement gives way to a Global (post-colonial) Settlement.”

As Mark Harris observed, these are words about power, plain and simple. Bishop Duncan knows that to appeal in this way to the leadership of the self-declared Global South and their wishes means appealing to wider experience of longstanding suffering. This suffering carries in it all the weight of centuries of the slave trade, racism, exploitation, imperial hubris, the shattering of community identity, and the degradation of perpetual violence bought through political oppression and economic ruin. I can’t help but wonder if he feels, by these words, he is following the Gospel imperative of helping empower the powerless – offering power to those who hitherto have had the back seat on the Anglican bus, along with the far back seat of the Global bus. As an added bonus, he can claim his own seeming powerlessness as a victim offered up on the horns of ecclesiastical presentment, portions of his diocese on the brink of following him over the brink into the chasm of schism.

The language of power seems to have become commonplace when The Episcopal Church’s harshest critics talk about the Anglican Communion these days. Bishop Martyn Minns said in a New York Times article about the upcoming Lambeth Conference that:

“It’s unfortunate, at a time the church needs clear and strong leadership, it gets two weeks of conversation.”

Are these just sour grapes from an uninvited bishop? Whether they are or aren’t matters less than this: these are really words about power. The leadership that Minns wants to see is about wielding power to reign in the heresies as he sees them — heresies that he believes are undermining the Church so much so that he’s willing to risk his own irregular consecration and the properties of his former parish in a lengthy legal and ecclesiastical battle for control. Even though Archbishop Rowan Williams and the Lambeth design team, in their intentional decision to keep Communion legislation — a form of creating and wielding power — out of the upcoming Lambeth Conference, actually are helping return Lambeth to its original non-legislative purpose: “To enable the Bishops of the Anglican Communion to discern and share more deeply their Anglican identity and become even better equipped for their Christ-given task of being leaders in God’s mission.”

But this is not merely to single out Bishop Minns, Bishop Duncan, or any other organizers of GAFCON. The truth is we all pine after the same thing: control over our own lives and ends. We worry sometimes that our powerlessness is a sign that we have been abandoned or at least challenged by God. That we are empty. That we have lost control. And that therefore we have been broken and betrayed. A statement of feeling abandoned given the House of Bishops shortly after Gene Robinson was narrowly approved for consecration says it all. It was made by Bishop Robinson’s seminary classmate, Bishop Duncan:

“This body has denied the plain teaching of Scripture and the moral consensus of the church throughout the ages.… I will stand against the actions of this Convention with everything I have and everything I am. I have not left, and will not leave, the Episcopal Church or my apostolic role as Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh. It is this Seventy-fourth General Convention that has left us, betrayed us, undone us. May our merciful Lord Jesus have pity on us, His broken bride.”

The challenge faced by those most discontented with the recent actions of The Episcopal Church and determined to wrest it back by any means necessary is in a large sense an articulation of a desperate sense of losing power, of losing control over their Church, or at least their own faith, if nothing else. There was a time when the Church either tacitly or overtly affirmed the faith they felt they had received. Now that a significant portion feels called to discern anew, in the light of fresh understanding from our tradition, scripture, and reason, a relatively small portion of this faith, the very foundations of what some of us have held are perceived as questioned, “revised” as the current lingo has us squarely pegged (labeling is yet another source of control, of power): “revisionists.” We shouldn’t wonder that a number of our brothers and sisters in The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada run headlong towards Anglican provinces that, by simple majority, support their “reasserter” claims and wish to consolidate power and authority around them.

Ironically enough, those of us who are supportive of the full inclusion of our LGBT sisters and brothers and their covenanted relationships in the sacramental life of the Church are seeking ways to help empower the historically powerless, the “least of these” who have suffered a long oppression and frequently a deadly silence. But in doing so, we have placed the source of personal and relational, if not simply faith power of some of our other sisters and brothers under threat. And, to our own peril, we have frequently in writing, speech, and action, attempted to capitalize on this threat and puffed up our own sense of self righteousness, our own sense of power by seeing ourselves on the right side of God’s grace.

Yet all of these questions of power as we continue to spiral around them, sometimes like sharks in a feeding frenzy, assume a basic premise that demands this question:

Is the Gospel fundamentally about power?

The theme of the narratives themselves seem from the very beginning to place Jesus outside the realms of earthly power, at once crowning him as king while simultaneously placing him amongst the “least of these.” Matthew’s family tree for Jesus, for instance, is filled with biblical reprobates and anti-heroes. He is conceived out of wedlock and born at the edge of the civilized world in a stable while the outcasts, marginalized, and foreigners come to worship him and herald his arrival. He follows in the footsteps of an executed prophetic cousin, preaches hope and brings healing to the forgotten poor, shirks invitations to be made a populist and powerful political ruler, and ultimately faces his own demise by giving himself up – weaponless and abandoned by his friends – to a cold and calculating authority wielded by the greatest power of the time, manifested as empire.

Ours is hardly the Gospel of power. In fact, the theme of the Gospel seems to warn us over and over again that the pursuit of power is the root of a great deal of evil in our lives and the lives of others. The Pharisees are repeatedly chastised for power gained through an obsession with pious acts and behavior. The Sadducees and elders are contradicted for their appeal to the powers found in carefully guarded textual analysis and protecting a religious and political economic system that continues to damn the least powerful to an unholy poverty.

Jesus collects to himself the least powerful, the outcasts, the sinners, the ne’er-do-wells in every sense, the pariahs of his day. And even the later theologizing about him in the oft-persecuted world of the early Church will opine of a God who relinquished power to become one of us, who gave up glory to become Christ for the sake of our salvation. It seems to me that this is the most that can be said about power in the New Testament: that to be allied with the coming Reign of God, power is best shared and even given up, especially to those who have none. And, ultimately, the journey into the heart of God has little to do at all with power, and a great deal more to do with that holy mystery called love: a love which demands that power be relinquished. Ironically enough, this with all of its missing manifestations seems to be close to the heart of the present malaise in the Communion. And yet we talk about it so little. Power by itself is a much more exciting study and practice.

So why all this talk of power at GAFCON? Indeed, what will the Global South do with it as they receive it, grab it, or simply isolate themselves from the rest of us and generate it for themselves? Will they do any better with power held tight than the North and West in our collective ages of empire, exploitation, and oppression? Will they stay at the table and wield a benevolent power if the Provinces of the Anglican Communion pass the vaunted provisions of the proposed St. Andrew’s Draft that give the power to declare Anglican provinces in our out? Will they declare rightly, in God’s eyes, that theologies of a particular kind may be disempowered to keep the powerful of the Church in control, cleansed and pure of the heretical? As many have already deserved, we Anglicans started trying to wrestle ourselves free of that notion, for better or for worse, nearly five hundred years ago.

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” Jesus said about power to a people in a culture and a time that dealt and conversed in terms of power just as much as we do in the present time. It’s an easy conclusion to draw: Jesus speaks to us with these words now.

It would behoove us all to truly listen.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. He has served in interfaith, ecumenical, diocesan, and national church organizations, including Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries , stewardship, and ethnic and multicultural church settings. He blogs regularly about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, and church politics at Caught by the Light.

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