Fractured Identity and Broken Trust: TEC’s Invention of Itself - Epraim Radner

ACI

Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner  
Wednesday, 23 May 2007

In the midst of an increasingly exhausting and exhausted ecclesial struggle, we are now once again hearing the plea, “Why can’t we just get along?”.  It is a question many have long raised, but its renewed urgings, from leaders within TEC or recently from e.g. South Africa, have about them the resonance now of anxious desperation.  We are watching relations slip from our grasp, relations that were once dear, and once fruitful, and that, in the face of the tremendous human needs of the world’s confused peoples, seem more precious than ever.  Is there no way to go back to the days before Anglicans fought so bitterly with one another?

The answer from many within the trenches of conflict is that “no, too much is at stake”.  For conservatives what is at stake is a perceived doctrinal heresy that has taken root within TEC’s life and other parts of the Communion, a heresy close to if not actually crossing the line into apostasy.  For some progressives what is at stake is likewise the core of the Gospel message, which they see as demanding the “full inclusion” of homosexually active persons into all aspects of the Church’s life.  These are not matters that, for the disputants, admit of compromise.

The reply of the exhausted to such intransigence is that doctrine and discipline have never been the communion-breaking elements they now seem to have become.  Why the problem now?  And there is some truth to all these questions and responses.  There was doctrinal disagreement, and on important matters, within the Communion and within many of its churches some time ago and over a long period.  Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics struggled over doctrine and discipline around the world.  We know about DeKoven and his failure to receive episcopal consent in 19th-century America, and about Doane’s presentment.  We know of the profound estrangement between parties in places like Tanzania until at least the 1970’s, reflecting the attitudes of different missionary societies through which divisions stretched across the oceans. ECUSA was already for a long time highly suspect in the ‘60’s and ‘70s for its “liberal” permissions, particularly among Evangelicals.  When I went as an appointed missionary to Burundi in the early 1980’s, there was a good deal of anxiety about my coming on the part of British church workers there, and of some Africans, because of what kind of disagreeable views an American Episcopalian might be bringing into their midst. Yet, except in limited ways (not counting, of course the many and often violent separations of non-conformists in the 17th century and later the Methodist split) Anglican churches held together over the last two centuries.

And in the midst of this was even a level of respect, despite the clear sense of difference among various groups.  To focus on the current occasion of dispute, for instance, discussions about homosexuality were already open in the late ‘70’s.  I even remember the topic was being addressed, in a general way, within Burundi in the early ‘80’s:  Barundi with a certain level of global awareness knew about some of the realities of sexual practice and debate going on in Europe and America.  They knew about it among Roman Catholics in their own country especially, among indigenous and foreign clergy both, some of whom were known to be homosexually active.  In these realizations, there was at the time both a level of disgust and bemusement.  I myself was fondled several times by Africans while riding the bus.  No one was particularly surprised to hear this, and the “acceptance” of these realities back then is all well-known territory.  Even in the 1990’s Frank Griswold visited Nigeria, and efforts were made to talk and learn, including post-Lambeth.  None of this rose, even remotely, to the level of today’s acrimony.

So what happened?  How did it all fall apart?  Clearly, Gene Robinson was a watershed, and with it went a lot of other matters building up and associated, often in profound and logical ways, with the seemingly radical change in sexual discipline that General Convention 2003 represented.  But “doctrine” alone doesn’t explain the tidal shift in relationships.

The central problem,  I believe – one noted by both Windsor and Primates— is the loss of “trust”:  trust among Anglican churches was broken, and by and large, the initiative for this breaking (although not wholly) has come from one direction.  In sum, TEC and her leaders broke trust with the Communion, and Global South leaders and conservatives within and outside TEC lost “trust” in the American church and her leaders.  This is related to TEC’s changed doctrine and discipline; but, as I said, only partly.  One can navigate doctrinal difference and dispute, even of the most essential kind, if there is a trusted means of doing so. The real issue has been the sense that TEC is no longer what she was, that her word is not worth anything, that she cannot keep promises, that she is no longer trustworthy and therefore she that cannot be dealt with consistently and openly in terms of discussions and common counsel.  The doctrinal and disciplinary dispute of the present is “irreconcilable” not only because the divergences at issue are vast, but because there is no commonly coherent means of resolving them. The difference between 1970’s and the 2000’s is that in 1970, for all the suspicions and even dislike and outright worries about its liberalism, ECUSA was still “trusted”; now she is not.

And why was ECUSA trusted then, and TEC is no longer trusted now? In brief, because TEC has lost her bearings within a coherent history others once recognized; because she no longer evidences a consistent character others once encountered;  and because she is no longer engaged in a committed Christian discussion of critical matters in a Christian way with her Anglican sisters and brothers she once pursued.  This claim is now worth unpacking.

One major debate today – and it has emerged only now, but necessarily and essentially – is over the identity of the Episcopal Church’s history, and thereby the church’s historical character.  The debate has been attached to a new argument that has been promoted of late by, e.g. the House of Bishops, and that has also been taken up by the House’s allies and apologists.  The argument is that TEC has an exceptional character vis a vis the rest of the Communion:  she is a “democratic” church.  And this “democratic” character means that the church is governed by a comprehensive set of representatives well-beyond the episcopal order, committed to “liberative praxis”, to breaking the shackles of colonialist imperialism, to upholding the needs and aspirations of oppressed and marginalized peoples, and to working to fulfill the inclusivist project (or “mission”) of God to bring all people, whatever their condition and social status, into a reconciled and egalitarian participation within the Church’s authoritative order.  This articulated self-identity has been used to justify the direction taken by TEC’s General Convention on matters of sexual morals and discipline (not to mention other elements like “open communion”), even when this direction has gone counter to previously stated hopes, claims and promises.

Now, this newly argued Episcopalian identity may indeed be a hope for some or even for many.  But it in no way represents the historical character of TEC in a purely factual or sociologically tethered fashion.  The new progressive liberative identity is a constructed or invented history that is being foisted on the church by its proponents through the mechanisms of political rhetoric and strategic procedure.  But it does not reflect what TEC has in fact been, or even is today (leaving aside the question of whether it is faithful to the Gospel of the Scriptures itself, which, in many crucial respects, I believe it is not).

Obviously, the historical character of the Episcopal Church is going to be debated, just as the historical character of any institution or social body has been and will continue to be debated by parties and individuals seeking control of that body’s future.  And in the process of such debate many claims will themselves be constructions, designed to support and further a given agenda (however christianly admirable).  But distortions and outright false constructions need to be confronted, as in this case, largely because people both within TEC and in the Communion recognize the dissonance, and precisely this recognized dissonance must undermine trust.
The false historical character of the currently promoted liberative picture of TEC’s identity is in fact false both in what it covers up negatively and in what it omits positively.

Negatively, it ignores the deep exclusivism and homogeneity – socially and otherwise – of Episcopal denominationalism in US history.  This has moved in directions completely opposite to the emancipatory claims of the present, not only in the past, but currently.  Even the Presiding Bishop recognizes this when she boasts that the average educational and economic levels of Episcopalians are e.g. tied to low birth-rates (cf. her remarks on why the Episcopal Church is shrinking relative to Catholics and Mormons, whose “lower educational” social level is tied to higher birth rates and poor control of contraceptive resources).  For the fact is that, even today (and perhaps more today than 100 years ago), TEC is predominantly professional, highly educated, and highly remunerated, mostly white in its make-up.  Actual funding and congregational outreach for mission and ministry outside its predominant social setting e.g. to the inner-cities and to immigrant or native peoples, is below that of 50 years ago, as is engagement in non-Western areas of the world.  Likewise, educational outreach, once one of the Episcopal Church’s evangelistic strong points, even in the realm of historically black colleges, has alarmingly faltered.  Who in reality is the liberative Gospel of TEC touching, and who has it actually touched in the past?

What is also ignored in the current historical reconstruction of TEC are the positive corollaries of these obscured negative realities.  The cultured homogeneity of TEC in the past was also the vehicle of a particular kind of Scriptural and liturgical formation in common prayer, tied to a certain literary achievement that maintained a singular intellectual and theological tradition vital both to the development of America and of ecumenical life.  The current fall from the (limited) missionary endeavors of the past does at least point to the relatively robust character of that earlier missionary work—- in 19th-century America and its frontiers, in Asia and in the cities and among the working class (esp. among Anglo-Catholics) in the 20th century, however much motivated by noblesse oblige.  The Anglican re-appropriation of the of the ancient church’s and early British “missionary bishop”, now used so effectively in Nigeria, was an Episcopalian charism, shared with others and then left behind.  Next, the ecumenical vision, wisdom, and even holiness of TEC was a remarkable gift to the larger Church that was not a once-off bequest, but an ongoing and vital contribution.  Or have we forgotten someone like Bp. Charles Brent, leading the world in the early 20th century on this front, but only leading on the basis of earlier American challenges such as that which led to the Chicago Quadrilateral and even to the promotion of the first Lambeth Conference?  Related to this, finally, was the Episcopal Church’s seminal role in imbuing the notion of “communion” into Anglicanism as a global phenomenon.  This began, in a deliberate way, with the mid-19th-century reconnection of PECUSA with the Church of England in a self-consciously articulated vision of shared ecclesial character.  This, in turn, opened the way to the first Lambeth Conference, and was followed by the movement through Huntington to Brent and Bayne – a coherent line of interest in the communion of the body of Christ that, if hardly at the center of internal PECUSA self-awareness, represented a consistent set of lived commitments vis a vis the world, ones that fueled a widening missionary outreach to Asia and beyond, as well as within the boundaries of America.

Not that the orientation towards the ministry of “justice” was invisible.  In the 1960’s, there was real admiration elsewhere for ECUSA’s official, and in many cases individual and congregational engagement in the Civil Rights movement as a Christian vocation.  But this commitment came increasingly to dominate the official self-image of the church, now broadly extended to the whole political liberationist sphere.  As a result, there has arisen an internal sense within parts of the church that a new history was being spun out of political fantasies that were invasive and suffocating, and that were being promoted at the alarming expense of other and more rooted realities, e.g. of the church’s worship tradition, theological rigor, connectivity, mission and evangelism, and open generosity of resources.

But the “new history” took hold of decision-making, embracing especially the liberative sexual agenda of the ‘70’s onward:  easier and accepted divorce and remarriage, unquestioned premarital sexual intercourse, abortion rights, and, increasingly, affirmation of homosexual relations.  The problem was that this historical self-image was more and more at odds, not only with the past, but with the self-identities and historical consciousness of many Episcopalians and other Anglicans.  When AIDS emerged as a central human tragedy, first in the U.S. and then in areas like Africa, the liberative consciousness of the new ECUSA history simply could not sustain the complex realities of the disease’s behavioral and social implications, and the dissonance created by the “new” became, for many, magnified into an open hostility.  And at the same time, the decision of ECUSA, divorced and insulated from the larger history and character of the church, moved more and more obsessively in directions positively contradictory to the previous character and finally actual and articulated commitments of ECUSA and its leaders.  This grating incongruity was noted and felt more and more.

One finally sees at this point the way that the fruit of broken trust grew and flourished in this context.  House of Bishops and General Convention statements on marriage were more and more ignored or dismissed, commitments to refrain from unilateral alterations of ethical teaching and discipline were contradicted, reports by appointed commissions or committees urging self-restraint on these fronts because of obvious lack of consensus for change were brushed aside.  These have been retrospectively justified as expressions of TEC’s special vocation, that can and must lead her to take positions counter to the larger Church and Communion, although at the time they were generally simply made in an ignorant and complacent willfulness that never forthrightly analyzed, let alone grappled responsibly with the almost arbitrary changes of direction these decisions represented.

By the time we see bishops and Presiding Bishops publicly agreeing to certain courses of action in Communion gatherings and then returning to the US and doing the opposite, the contradiction, while obvious, appears to be but the concrete expression of a much deeper and long-standing habit of living out a false history.  It is false because it is wholly distanced and limited from the past and present, and the proof of its falsity lies precisely in the internal and Communion-wide reactions to its dramatization:  protest, opposition, deliberate agitation, and finally ecclesial departure.  And so too, the official reactions to these responses proves the new history’s perverted power over self-awareness:  blindness and denial.  In the face of falling attendance and resources, failed mission, disintegrating liturgical traditions and more, TEC’s leadership attributes discussion of such factual realities to skewed attitudes, exaggeration, depression, and malicious hostility.

What is at issue in all this, then, is not simply TEC’s doctrinal deviation.  That is a symptom, and a critical one, indeed a symptom that must be confronted and addressed.  Still, more fundamental and motivating in this sorry narrative is a fractured cultural personality, one that by definition can no longer be trusted even to recognize the need to deal credibly with the problems one’s own actions represent.

For what is trust?  Is it not the integrated ability to promise, to keep one’s word, and to have that word accepted and acted upon by others in an ordered engagement over time?  And such trust is based upon a coherent historical character.  This is obvious in intuitive ways.  It has also been argued conceptually by, for instance, the great Christian philosopher Paul Ricoeur (cf,. his “Self as Ipse” in the Oxford Amnesty Lectures of 1992).  Human identity is not a matter simply (or even at all) of pointing to the “same” entity at various moments in time, as if, in the case of a church, the demonstration that the ecclesial entity formed in 1789 is “in fact” the “same” church now known as “TEC”.  This might prove a feasible legal demonstration, and one that is necessary in cases of property dispute.  But it is not equivalent to the “identity” we ascribe to human, let alone “divine”, organisms, such as the Church of Christ.  For the identity upon which human life is based – not only nor even primarily as atomistic individuals, but as cooperative relational beings leading social lives in common – is given in the coherence of a narrative or history, through which a consistent character if formed and through which social engagement is pursued, such that promises can be made and mutually held to account.  And that is, in fact, what “trust” is all about.

We are familiar with the lack of such coherent character in the extreme cases of schizophrenia, addiction, narcissistic and borderline disorder and socio-pathology.  And one of the most destructive features of and outcomes to such personality incoherence is the complete breakdown of trustworthiness.  To be sure, TEC cannot, as a social body, be characterized in terms of a simple pathology.  But the embraced incoherence of its officially assumed historical character has as its consequences the same breakdown of trust:  TEC’s promises are no longer believable, because no one, even the inner circle of her national leadership, knows who she really is any longer.

And to add to this confusion, the unconscious attempt to rediscover an integral character has led to a proliferation of alternative manufactured “histories” and “characters”, especially among reactionary groups driven to uncover some new basis for Christian trust in their ecclesial existence.  Hence, the appeal to the 39 Articles, this or that edition of the Book of Common Prayer, a particular scriptural hermeneutic or conversionary paradigm, etc., as if an embrace or establishment of this ecclesial criterion, fixed now de novo in the midst of a historical map that simply doesn’t lead to this singular destination, could create a cohesive authority capable of garnering the wide trust of any but a small group of local devotees.  This kind of invention of an imaginative history, however predictable, is not a novel reaction in Anglican history especially in times of confusion, as we see in eras when the Church’s “history” as been forcibly re-constructed and imposed on the larger body by religious cliques.  The result, in the past as in the present, has been further fracturing in the face of an accurately perceived breakdown in ecclesial trust that has overwhelmed common purpose and common knowledge (e.g. the 1550’s, the 1630’s, the 1660’s, etc..).

In the 1970’s and ‘80’s, the rest of the Communion still had a sense that ECUSA’s character was in continuity with her historical persona.  That persona was not one that was necessarily welcomed everywhere or without stint, hence the suspicions over liberalism or high churchmanship here and there that were felt by non-Western evangelicals in Africa and Asia for instance.  But there was also admiration for ECUSA’s steadiness as a friend, her generosity, and even her courage in some areas.  And promises – explicit or implied – had been made and were still perceived as being kept.  The canonically illegal ordinations of the first American women priests in Philadelphia in 1974, however, had already begun to trouble the trust of significant numbers back within ECUSA, even sympathizers of women’s ordination.  As the self-identity of “prophetic” overturners of unjust restraints – now called “taboos” in a jingoistic appropriation of patronizingly anthropological language – took posession of the imaginations of those holding the levers of power (the national church’s bureaucracy, Executive Council, etc..), movements of rhetoric and decision followed that were no longer coherent either with the church’s past or with broad swathes of her memberhip’s self-understanding.  “TEC” had begun to emerge as the Jacobin folly of Anglicanism.  This new persona was cheered on by some, but generally seen as a revolutionary self-image, bent on devouring her own young, with a word whose constancy was tied to the consistency only of her cravings’ insatiability.

It could be argued that in all of this, TEC is simply demonstrating her cultural captivity, in this case her subservience to a larger American ethos in which “history” is precisely about personal and discontinuous re-invention, rather than corporate continuity.  This aspect of America, that derives perhaps from the earliest colonial immigrants’ attempts at “starting new” and putting behind them the burdens of their pasts, seeps through every pore of American life and makes every attempt at articulating a “tradition” rather an exercise in self-construction.  Historians like Michael Kammen (cf. his Mystic Chords of Memory) have begun to study this aspect of American culture quite carefully;  but it has always been noted, from de Tocqueville on, and even earlier.  Although TEC leaders seem to view “Puritanism” as a moral failure, in fact they hold much in common with the Puritan mission of breaking the vessels of the past, especially when adapted to the radical politics of anti-establishmentarianism.  Like the 19th-century President of Yale, Noah Porter, who famously said that “the history of thought and speculation [is] the history of confusion and error”, our leaders now seem to embody a kind of cross between Cotton and Paine in their rejection of tradition as the gathered flotsam of dead wood.  The study of history has never been an American strong point – as a discipline, accepted into university curricula only late – and this weakness is born mostly of an ideological antipathy towards the past.  Although this quintessentially American attitude has never sat well with Episcopal commitments, for a host of obvious reasons, it continues to press against ecclesial catholicism.  And it is odd to see, just at the time when the reality of the Anglican Communion might in fact fulfill some of the deepest catholic yearnings of the Episcopal Church’s unusual place within the spectrum of American denominationalism, the TEC open itself to a complete capitulation to its cultural milieu.

But much like the larger world’s reaction to the present American administration’s flouting of international agreement and counsel, other churches now look TEC with disturbed puzzlement:  “We no longer know who you are; and your current claims are not believable, because they do not match your past character.”  So the Communion, in its own increasing incoherence, addresses TEC as she stands before it.  And TEC’s children, the agitating or smaller groups within TEC or those that have left her skirts behind, offer only rustling and conflicting protests in response.  So that the next question follows perforce:  “And who, then, shall we trust?”.

If we were to trace the figures of the Scriptures, we would expect this situation’s resolution to lie in long Wilderness wanderings or in the bitter adjustments to Exile, where the chosen incoherence of Israel’s life and character, born out of a rejection of God’s gifts to her, is refashioned by the force of divine circumstance.  But that is God’s choosing and doing, not ours to manipulate.  For our part, we are called, certainly and without question, to give ourselves over to the rebuilding of trust, as a Christian church living in a Christian Communion.  That is our task, whether we want it or not.  And the task, it seems, demands at least the following:

1.  We must re-grasp past promises and uphold them.  Trust cannot be restored by making new promises, since none of them are believable until the old are recognized and followed.  It is simply not possible to keep saying, in the face of every attempt to make agreements or respond to the Communion’s lost trust, “whatever it seems we are doing, it is not and cannot be a ‘turning back’ on the path we have followed to this point”.  Each time this is said by the Presiding Bishop or by the House of Bishops or by individual bishops or by the Executive Council—- and we have heard it many times now—it stands as an assertion of continued untrustworthiness, removes a beam of confidence, and furthers fracture.  Unless there is a “going back”, back to the stated teachings and discipline, back to the promises of cooperation and consultation and collegial decision-making of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s and even ‘90’s (cf. B….of 1990), TEC’s identity is without substance and its word without foundation.  Trust involves the stewardship of what one has “received” (cf. the vows made by priests, which is why the present choices being made by TEC’s leadership threaten the ability of clergy to adhere to the current direction of self-proclaimed Episcopal decisions).  And such stewardship demands first of all the upholding of that trust in its fullness, not in bits and pieces, leaving other parts to fall by the wayside.  This is, without doubt, the hardest thing for many to hear:  Robinson’s election, consent, and consecration must somehow be reversed – he must resign or accept his withdrawal; the claims to optional (though apparently Gospel-demanded in the minds of some) embrace of same-sex affirmations must be set aside;  there must be a willingness to step back.  The most recent statement of the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding invitations to Lambeth provides just this opportunity to step back – and not just Americans! – in way that is not simply governed by a sullen acquiescence to perceived coercion, but out of a sincere desire to re-establish bonds of trust now more than just frayed.

To many this will appear to be simply an impossibility and a repellant affront.  But the reality – not the invention of self-despair – is that homosexual life in the US, including in TEC, is among the most comfortable of existences in the world, even were it to be lived in the midst of a reaffirmation of TEC’s previous commitments and discipline.  Part of the dynamic of TEC’s fall into incoherence is precisely its lack of self-awareness—socially as much as anything— and its forging of fictitious realities and identities, because they are limited, unrepresentative, and dismissive of past truths.  To face this fact and admit it, let alone retreat from its consequences, is obviously an enormous threat to some people’s agenda.  But human health and ecclesial trust demands it.  And if this demand is rejected – “no, but we are the church of liberative protest and utopia, on every front, and we will not accept alternatives!” – it will simply be an admission that there is no church here at all that is worth dealing with on a basis other than commercial interchange, a peculiarly American enterprise that now characterizes the life of modern relations around the world:  what can we get, what can we earn, what can we squeeze out of one another; then let’s move on.  This is the “communion” of the suspicious, the untrusting, and the untrustworthy.  TEC may well be left behind because of this, but not without already poisoning the trust of many other churches in the Communion.

2.  We must once more renew the study of our history.  If nothing else, the present debacle of TEC is a wake-up call, not just to Episcopalians, but to all Anglicans, to get beyond the clichéd and superficial assertions regarding “Anglicanism” and “our character” that have so bedeviled clergy and their flock for so long, and dressed people up as experts in nothing more than their own prejudices.  I hardly claim that the historical outline sketched here constitutes the “truth” of the Episcopal Church’s identity, except to the degree that it underlines the current confusion over that identity. The debate over the history and character of the Episcopal church is a real one today, but only in part because it is complex.  By and large, it is real because of ignorance, bad education, and laziness.  We will need the humility to pursue such study, and also the perseverance to avoid preemptive and premature conclusions.  But that is not because such historical judgments can never attain to a greater degree of truth, but rather because the truth demands that its apprehension take place with the care of knowledge and argument.  Some today may fear the wisdom of Robert Conquest’s claim that we are all most reactionary about the subjects we know best;  but that is no excuse to run from study.

3.  The councils of the church are based on trust.  To carry on meeting and gathering and discussing when trust has been so dissolved is to further distrust, and to fuel the downward spiral of the Communion’s and the larger Church’s unraveling.  This cannot be overemphasized.  And therefore, the Communion itself needs to make some difficult decisions among its members as to the shape and timing of further council.  Who should – and, in the sense of trustworthiness, who “can” – participate?  TEC is not the only church whose trust has been questioned, although we are the most egregious in our communal infidelities. The approaching Lambeth Conference is clearly the most critical place with respect to which such decisions about participation need to be made.  I am hardly sure about the best way to approach this.  But I will say this:  if Lambeth takes place without first clarifying the basis for renewed trust among its members – including TEC, its progeny, its sworn and secret enemies – it will be no Christian conference, but an occasion for further scandal and destruction.  This is not because alienated Christian brethren should not gather for the sake of counsel and reconciliation.  Rather, it is because the alienation in council among estranged brethren has now proceeded so far as to undermine the ability of further general counsel to do anything more but feed mistrust.  There can be no more conciliar “business as usual”.  For the ecclesial “persons” now capable of meeting are too ill to think or speak responsibly.

The question of the proposed Covenant – leaving aside its particulars – remains, to my mind, critical to this entire reality.  And here is where, finally, TEC’s lost sense of identity is most challenged.  For in the face of the call to a covenanted relationship, with all of its admittedly untried hopes yet deeply necessary accountabilities, the constant response we hear from some TEC quarters that “we have not had a covenant, we do not need it, it contradicts who we are” is sounding more and more like the pleas of a person no longer believed, no longer trusted, and no longer capable of moving with others, and somehow recognizing unconsciously his or her own abandonment within the fantasies of their illusions.  There is no reason to expect an arousal from such constricted fear except this:  in God’s world the truth will prevail.  “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth” (Jn. 18:37).  Within TEC, even this truth will eventually liberate (Jn. 8:32).