To a certain kind of faithful Episcopalian, things may indeed look bleak. The recent House of Bishops meeting in Texas seems to put a seal of finality to the fraying hopes many of us had for the renewal of our common life. To be realistic, however, is not to lose hope; rather, it is see more clearly where our true hope must lie.
As for reality: There is clearly no real place left for conservative Christians within TEC’s official structures. It is obvious to me that, not only are the vast majority of the denomination’s leaders personally hostile to conservative commitments, but they have reached a point where they are quite open and brazen in their exclusion of conservative presence and influence within the councils of TEC. It is increasingly less likely that appointments of conservatives are made to diocesan, provincial, and national committees (the only way, for a long time now, that such a presence has even been possible); and it is certainly no longer likely that conservatives will be voted, by diocesan or national conventions, onto decision-making councils. Most of our seminaries apply, openly or surreptitiously, the gay-test (and probably do so in both directions, depending on the school). God forbid one should actually have a paper trail that marks one’s views. When conservatives are appointed to Communion committees and councils, they are subjected from within TEC to howls of protest and to negative campaigns, engaged in not simply by concerned individuals, but by bishops and diocesan representatives.
The recent House of Bishops meeting made clear that the alienation between TEC’s leadership and the Anglican Communion as a whole, at least as represented by its Instruments of Communion, has become currently unbridgeable. The bishops of TEC are convinced that their policies of gay inclusion are non-negotiable, and even the Presiding Bishop has made clear that there is “no going back” on actions and commitments made on this score. The clarity of the bishops’ and Executive Council’s and General Convention’s statements around this subject give the lie to any claim that TEC’s leadership is interested in “listening”, let alone learning from the rest of the Communion, or that they perceive their commitments even to be a part of some “reception” process of testing. They have made their decision regarding the absolute imperative of the Gospel on this score (as they see it), and no amount of conferences and dialogues on biblical “hermeneutics” and “cultural perspectives” will budge them from their perceived duty. Those within the church who disagree may be granted some measure of space to live out their ministries (although who knows?); but it has now been made very clear that they have no standing to oppose, for their views have been judged illegitimate. There is no place to go, in their view, but either towards an embrace of their now settled convictions, or away to the fading margins of their domain.
How should the Communion’s councils deal with this now defined reality? Here we may see where hope is leading us. In general, the Communion should simply allow TEC to go its own way for the present, and withdraw indefinitely its invitations to participate in general councils, such as Lambeth, the ACC, and the Primates’ Meeting. This was Katherine Grieb’s suggestion recently made to the House of Bishops, though her proposed limited time-frame should be left open-ended. Perhaps in 5 or 10 or 25 years, there will be movements that will change this drifting and now deliberate walking apart; but certainly they will not come about through a process of engaged dialogue. I think that the participation of any American in these councils and structures – whether bishop, clergyperson, or layperson – should be left undetermined at present. If individual invitations or petitions are tendered with respect to the Communion, let them be dealt with on an individual and ad hoc basis. TEC and its membership, as represented by its House of Bishops, Executive Council, and General Convention, have made it clear that they are committed to their own life, teaching, and discipline and on their own terms. This can and should be respected. The Communion should move on.
What then will happen to conservative Christians in TEC? There are several potential paths:
a. they can continue to gather, worship, and witness as they have, and with all the integrity they can muster, although with the clear sense that they have no directional place and probably future in this church. It is possible that, as leaders and congregations, they will simply “die out” in the coming years. For clergy who are near retirement, this may prove a peaceable option. For dioceses as a whole, there is a possible future of stability and fruitful ministry, perhaps even growth. There are real doubts about the ability to maintain appropriate episcopal leadership in such dioceses, however, in the light of the embarrassing fiasco of South Carolina’s failed consents, and simply the reality of larger social and ecclesial pressures working against maintaining coherent theological focus over the long haul.
b. they can organize, unilaterally as it were, a version of some “pastoral scheme” with a group of TEC bishops willing to step forward as a group. In effect, this would end up being a kind of alternative or parallel Anglican Church, although without yet a desired formal schism or separation. Bishops would still be members of TEC’s House of Bishops, for instance, assuming they were not brought up on presentment charges. Such an alternative church could, in theory, continue for a long time. Just as Grieb suggested that TEC should carry on in a “parallel” way with the Communion, so too this group could constitute a parallel to the TEC. This might or might not involve a Pastoral Council precisely organized as recommended in the Dar es Salaam Communiqué, although minus the input from TEC. But:
i. this would have to involve negotiation with the main representatives of TEC. Are there people of such good will still among us?
ii. and if such negotiation failed, it would involve either civil disobedience or litigation, or both. Are there people willing to face such things?
c. they can leave TEC and their properties (or negotiate buying them from their dioceses), and join some existing group that is not generally engaged in litigation, e.g. the AMiA (who has admirably, if not wholly consistently, avoided such things by simply leaving property behind and acquiring new buildings and planting new churches), or those individual congregations who have left property and gone under foreign jurisdictions.
i. These groups may or may not seek to join with one another into a common alternative Anglican church, which may or may not be recognized by the larger Communion as a whole. The challenges to this are enormous, especially beyond the short-term, as existing theological and disciplinary differences among conservatives emerge. The ecclesiological outlooks among several of the existing separated groups are vastly different, and to this point the differences have been obscured by the sense of struggling with a common adversary.
ii. the Communion as a whole will have a hard time recognizing such an alternative Anglican group “in the place of” TEC, unless the Communion leadership itself coheres more readily around a common vision, such as the Covenant. Hence, any recognition of a completely new Anglican church in America will probably have to wait several years.
d. they can leave Anglicanism altogether, and enter other Christian denominations and communions. There is anecdotal evidence that this has been a predominant response by conservatives to the present, although hard evidence is lacking.
Alternatives in themselves are useful only as they mark out parameters for discernment. What then is the best way among these alternatives? There are arguments to be made for and against each option. But let the Gospel guide our hopes!
In general, I would counsel complete avoidance of litigation – in concert with the explicit teaching of the Gospel – and instead encourage civil disobedience in cases where Christians choose to oppose the depredations of TEC leadership. But is this even a witness we are called to make? Anglicanism has its own sorry history of intolerance and injustice within its midst – we remember the whole-scale driving out of clergy in and after the English Civil War by both sides – and these kinds of conflicts among self-styled followers of Christ have long-lasting and scandalizing results. Simply leaving, however, is something that grates, though perhaps primarily against our pride. I recall only several months ago, at the diocesan convention of Colorado, that a diocesan leader (now appointed by the bishop to a Taskforce on our “common life”) publicly confronted me and demanded that I “and my kind” “leave the church and let [them] get on with ministry”; we were nothing but “dying embers” bringing division and sowing anger within the church. Part of me would like to prove these kinds of affronts simply wrong. Such a motive, however, would be base. There is no point dying with the church, unless one is ready to struggle for the truth. But there is no point struggling for the truth if the struggle leaves one bitter and hostile, aimed against adversaries instead of praying for them in love. If one is not called to the radiancy of joyful sacrifice, it is better to leave. And hope is radiant and ready.
In the end, however, I would urge our continued hope that the larger Communion – and not simply this or that individual leader or group, whose own discernment is often rather limited – will offer the kind of encouraging and supportive direction we seek, indeed that they shall in fact come forward with a Pastoral Council capable of meeting the needs of Anglican witness within the United States such as the Communiqué recommended. This would require the kind of corporate vision and courage (not Don Quixote individualism) on the part of “Camp Allen Principled” bishops that is necessary for them to step forward, offer their own readiness to work with such a Council, and suffer the consequences of their witness and leadership. We are now in the fullness of time for such a demonstration of hope! And we shall all need to hold steady in seeking this direction and support, and come together with a common sense of its need and usefulness.
I was struck, at the recent House of Bishops’ meeting, with the open abuse, often personally directed, thrown at the Primates by many of our bishops. Turning to them, it appears, means turning away from the majority of the TEC’s leadership. Some will ask, of course, “is this not a form of giving up?”. But if we do not do this, if we do not continue to hope in the larger Church, we are all being thrown back on individual conscience – a noble, but weak reed indeed that, on its own, can never save us. And it is far too easy to confuse our conscience with the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is the following of Him and Him alone – not by ourselves alone, but as the full Body of Christ! — that we seek to accomplish. May this Savior – who is “our hope” (1 Tim. 1:1) — come to our aid!
–The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is rector of Church of the Ascension, Pueblo, Colorado, and a fellow of the Anglican Communion Institute