Friday, 13 July 2007
The movement towards a separated North American Anglican church, aligned perhaps with one part of the Anglican Communion and not another, appears to be gaining steam. The focus of the Anglican Communion Network’s official leadership has shifted perceptibly towards this goal, overtly transferring its energies from its work as a coalition of American traditionalist bishops working representatively with the larger Communion, to the strategy of a “Common Cause” formation of a new ecclesial structure that would function either as a new Anglican Communion province, or as a province in a new alternative Anglican Communion. Regular consultation among Network bishops has diminished in frequency, while the work on Common Cause has demanded new and steadier communication.
Is this shift of energies positive? As a founding member of the Network, I would urge more open discussion about this. Indeed, it is a discussion that has not taken place in any organized, illuminated, and Communion-wide basis, and it needs to, quickly and honestly and without rancor. Obviously, the topic has long been a staple of blog debate. But however informative such debate can be, it is not a substitute for common prayer, discussion, and discernment as a Body in the Lord. Indeed, most bloggers are anonymous or pseudonymous, their representative roles blurred or hidden, and their actual numbers limited by the psychological demands of the genre. Yet, from Lambeth to North America to Africa, much that we know about the hopes and strategies of the coming months comes only on internet discussions culled from partially leaked memos, recorded off-hand comments, indirect interviews, secret informants, and pure speculation. And on this basis people declare their allegiances! The Anglican Church is longing for an open council, un-manipulated by guile and passion; yet what we are getting instead are the sparks of competing political strategies that have the effect of inculcating ecclesial passivity drunk on anxiety.
What is the history behind this shift of energies referred to above? My understanding of the Network – and I was a participant (although only one among many) in its formation, is that it was to be a “confessional” movement within TEC, and this at the recommendation of Archbishop Rowan Williams. It was to be “confessional” in the sense of taking a stand, on the basis of stated and articulated Gospel commitments, in the face of official church positions and practices viewed as unfaithful. This would be on the model of those opposing, e.g. the German Church in the 1930’s or, less antagonistically, like the reforming pietistic movements within Lutheranism in the 17th and 18thcenturies (ecclesiolae in ecclesia). Such a confessional movement would work in tandem and on behalf of the larger Communion as it tried both to deal with TEC’s errings and brokenness, and with their divisive effects within the Communion’s midst.
There was always, from the beginning, a tension in play among traditionalists between those who believed that a separate or parallel province in North America was necessary quickly – and hence that the “movement” aspect of this witness needed to be immediately translated into structural independence –- and those that did not. That tension was manifest in the reluctance of many conservative TEC bishops to join the Network at its inception, because of their fear that this tension was not resolved within the group, and worries they held over precipitous structural disengagement from TEC, that would decimate congregations, rain down law-suits, and split the Communion. This reluctance was viewed by some –although not all – of the Network leaders as a failure of nerve on the part of non-Network bishops, and a kind of moral distaste grew up between the two groups, a distaste that has poisoned trust and dampened communication to this day.
At the same time, the Network became involved in facilitating and organizing for the foreign oversight of numerous congregations who had either left TEC or were seeking to do so. Again, this work created tensions among conservative TEC bishops, and within the Network itself, over strategy and, in particular, over the integrity of the recommendations of the Windsor Report and its underlying commitments. There was a growing interest in the non-TEC elements of the Network that threatened to eclipse or at least re-configurate the needs of TEC-Network congregations and individuals.
Matters were not helped by the occasional publication of conversations, purportedly from within the Network leadership, indicating a continued interest and planning for the sake of new ecclesial structures. One area where this took place was in the formation in 2004 of Common Cause, an originally loose affiliation of the Network, AMiA, the Reformed Episcopal Church, the Anglican Province of America, and now CANA. The gathering together of these groups, with an agreed statement of purpose, took place out of the desire to unify “orthodox” elements of the Anglican tradition in North America for common witness, and now more concretely for a common “college” of bishops that might form the basis for a new province or church. This gathering was first initiated, in part, at the informal recommendation of some Global South Primates (informal because it was never made public or discussed publicly in council). In 2005, a carefully ordered but secret proposal for a new “Missionary District” of Common Cause was drafted and circulated, to be supervised by a council of Global South Primates, and to be led by American “suffragan” bishops, presumably consecrated by these Primates. This proposal did not receive consent at the time by all the Primates contacted. But it now appears to have been pursued by a smaller group of them and it is this that we are perhaps seeing emerging in the last few months, as American bishops have been chosen by Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda to oversee on their behalf congregations in the United States.
There are distinctly important issues at stake in this history and where it is headed. And they deserve a full and open airing among conservatives and others in America and in the Communion, most certainly before further actions are taken that may prove to have irrevocable effects on our common life. My own sense about the direction being taken here has grown increasingly worried, and for the following reasons:
1. The process of discernment and organization that has led to the Network-Common Cause-New Province strategy has become more and more narrow in its participatory base. Conservative bishops, clergy, and congregations who have not been immediately positive to the direction being taken have been less and less engaged in discussion. The whole-scale “writing off”, often on the basis of stray Scriptural texts applied more with anger than consideration, of non-Network conservative bishops from the start by those following this strategy has been both unrealistic, unhopeful, and weakening of the traditional witness within TEC and the Communion.
2. Related to this, has been the non-consultative and non-synodical method of decision-making around matters touching wide swathes of common life, not only within the US but within the Communion as a whole: the organizing of convocations, missionary districts, planning of strategies, election of bishops, and building of proto-provinces without open discussion and representation of those affected cannot breed either trust or unity, even in the midst of conflict within the structures of the institution. This is true within the United States as well as within the African Provinces choosing to consecrate American bishops, not to mention among the Primates as a whole. It is not the case that all parts of the Windsor Report require uncritical acceptance; but the Primates themselves strongly upheld the first two sections of the Report, which speak very clearly about the consultative and interdependent character of life in the Church’s Communion, and it is profoundly unhelpful when those seeking to uphold Windsor’s goals, if not all of its details, cannot act unstintingly according to the principles of common life the accepted and endorsed Report enunciates.
It must be said that the current lack of clarity or forthrightness on the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury around many of these matters does little to further such openness, and as a result strategies and reactions, fueled by incomplete information and bare speculation, now seem to take the place of synodical prayer, discussion, debate, and discernment. When significant planning meetings take place secretly, initiatives are simply announced, and many of those – including bishops – purportedly involved in an organization do not know what has been decided until after the fact, we can fairly say that the “light” that is the Gospel’s essential way of being in the world has been obscured.
3. It seems as if some of the quiet strategizing that is taking place derives from such a deep suspicion with respect to large parts of the Communion, including its Instruments of Communion, that only stealth is deemed an appropriate and prudent way forward. This has been tied to what appears to be a growing antagonism towards the Archbishop of Canterbury and now, as a result, against the Lambeth Conference itself. (The ACC has long been rejected by many conservatives as having any useful conciliar role.) The result of this is that the remaining Instrument through which the Common Cause church has hoped to find its allies, the Primates’ Meeting, has little leverage within the Communion at large, and in fact is appearing increasingly constrained and disorganized. What outcome to this process or drift is left, for those who do nothing to reverse it, other than walking away from the Communion itself into a newly established church?
4. Concerns over this outcome are now dividing otherwise sympathetic Primates and Global South churches themselves. The calling of an “alternative Lambeth” or a formal split from or setting aside of the See of Canterbury as a focus for unity, will not gather the support of any but a minority of Provinces or dioceses, significant though some may be in terms of size. The Global South provinces themselves will be split on this, and there are significant rumblings among bishops within even African provinces who feel their Primates are pressing matters beyond what has been mutually agreed. The strategy of pushing forward a separated church in North America apart from the Communion’s own common decisions thereby threatens not only the unity of the Communion – that goes without saying – but the integrity of the witness of traditional Anglicanism itself.
The concerns I have listed above do not diminish the respect and support I give to the Network and its leadership, of which I remain a member. My concerns, rather, derive from my desire that we hold our witness together, and that we do so in away that not only maintains but garners trust. We have a work and a witness we are called to do together, and I pray it is together that we do it.
But concerns are still concerns. From my own perspective, I cannot see any way through the current disputes and threatened divisions other than persistent and good-willed common counsel on the part of the Communion’s representative leaders done openly and with as wide a reach as possible. If Lambeth cannot meet and agree, then who will listen? If the Primates cannot meet and agree, in conjunction with Lambeth, nothing will be done together. If the ACC cannot consider and respond to the executive desires of the Primates, there will be no common following. If Primates do not take counsel and seek agreement with all their bishops, and bishops with all their dioceses, there is nothing but individual conscience and passion determining all things. And if, in all these things, the Scriptures of Christ are not placed at the center of prayer, discussion, and discernment, there is nothing about which to counsel that will bear the mark of the Spirit’s direction. And other than this last – and most important! – element, we already have the structures by which to carry through with such common decision-making, if we but discipline ourselves to submit ourselves to them in faith, hope, and love. Then perhaps we shall have made room to listen to the Word of God.
As I said, I believe these kinds of concerns need to be aired and debated openly, by those whose names are known, by those who have as take in the outcome, and by the full gathering of those granted authority to take counsel and make decisions for the church. They should be debated, but they should also and even more be subjected to the wisdom of gathered representatives of our churches, and not pursued by one group or another regardless of the views and decisions of others. The Episcopal Church as a whole has been an egregious model of such brazen disregard, and the model is one to be rejected wholly and utterly.
It is not that the gathering together of traditional Anglicans in North America is not a worthy and evangelical goal. It is, and many of us would welcome and are willing to work for such a goal. The AMiA, for instance – and one can say analogous things about other parties represented in Common Cause—has had for several years now a strong witness in evangelism and church-planting that is needed by all of us, and their full integration back into the Communion would prove a spiritual gift for mission that all of us need and that would do honor to the Gospel. But there are realities on the ground that require serious resolution for this to happen fruitfully, and that resolution requires the engagement of many parties and peoples in honest and common discussion on the basis of shared prayer and humble listening within the context of the Scriptures. What is one to do, for instance, of a long-standing lawsuit between a current Network bishop and a current AMiA bishop? How resolve the disagreements and even bitterness that exists between conservative bishops and AMiA plants and splits within their borders? What of the deep theological and ecclesiological differences that exist between many Network bishops and those of the AMiA, let alone other non-Network traditionalists? And this pertains to North America only, and has not yet touched on the divides and disagreements and misunderstandings that exist, on this matter, around the Communion, and with Lambeth in particular, where a trail of bitter denunciations cannot simply be papered over. It is not enough for this or that group to formulate position papers and declare their views and commitments apart from the whole (this includes the Network, ACI, Camp Allen, Common Cause or anyone else), and then to expect that these views will persuade or bear converting authority. The cause we have in common at present is the cause for common consultation, discernment, decision, and only then, action, so that our work “side by side” for the Gospel is founded on the “common mind” of the Church in Christ (Phil. 1:27).