By the Rev. Mark Michael
Responding to a pointed rhetorical question — “Is it the End?: The Future of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion” — a panel at Virginia Theological Seminary provided a consistent answer: probably not.
Panelists for the discussion, held Feb. 8 at Virginia Theological Seminary, included the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, 26th presiding bishop and a visiting professor at VTS; the Rev. Mark Chapman, vice principal of Ripon College Cuddesdon; and the Rev. Katherine Grieb and the Rev. Robert Prichard of VTS. The Rev. Robert Heaney, director of the Center for Anglican Communion Studies, moderated the discussion.
Panelists agreed that the primates’ communiqué reveals deep and complex divisions. But many held out hope for future reconciliation, citing the primates’ unanimous resolution to “walk together” as an unexpected grace. Others also addressed the spiritual value for the Episcopal Church in accepting a humbler place in the life of the Anglican world.
Chapman said that Anglicans have long adopted “a minimal idea of what the church is at the global level, which makes it very difficult to work out conflict.” The problem of impaired communion is no new matter in Anglican history, and has been part of the Communion’s life since some provinces began to ordain women in the 1970s.
“The question is where boundaries will be drawn,” Chapman said. “The intention of the Archbishop of Canterbury is to talk about where boundaries should be and how to talk about them.”
Grieb, who holds a degree in canon law and serves on the Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith, and Order (IASCUFO), said the primates’ communiqué sounds like “a decree, a sentence, a statement of how things are.”
“Questions have been raised,” she said, on whether the primates have exercised a legislative power that belongs to the Anglican Consultative Council. “It may not have been done in the most helpful way, but the primates’ voice is important, and needs to be heard.”
“Being a decision-making body was not the original focus” of the Primates’ Meeting, Jefferts Schori said. “The ACC is the body that makes policy decisions on behalf of the whole body.”
“The ACC will presumably ratify the primates’ decision,” Chapman said. “It’s a technical distinction, really.”
But Grieb seemed less certain about that ratification: “The ACC will take their own identity and commission seriously and determine what they should do.”
“I hope that a benefit of this conflict will be to bring some clarity to how these bodies operate,” Prichard said.
Jefferts Schori suggested that any lack of clarity about the roles of the ACC and the primates rests in different ways of decision-making among Anglican provinces. Churches with large legislative bodies, like the Episcopal Church, tend to see the ACC as the more natural decision-making body. More hierarchical churches, like those in the Global South, assume that bishops should make important decisions.
Jefferts Schori said she has observed decreased tensions in successive meetings of the primates since 2003: “There is a trajectory that moves clearly toward a very strong desire to walk together.”
She said the renewed presence of primates at the recent meeting was an important statement of common commitment.
Grieb echoed her analysis, citing the primates’ unanimous desire for continued fellowship as “a grace, an action of the Holy Spirit.”
Still, all the speakers said, the most recent communiqué has surfaced deep and complicated tensions that resist simple resolution.
Grieb pointed to two New Testament ecclesiologies, in clear tension, that inform the way the two sides address conflict.
A Pauline theology of the Church as the body of Christ stresses that “one member can’t say to the other, ‘I do not need you.’ Everybody belongs. If we assume good faith, even though ideas and practices differ, we are part of one Church, one community.”
Another ecclesiology, more rooted in Global South, derives from the pastoral epistles and the Book of Revelation, Grieb said. This understanding of the Church worries deeply about false teaching and false prophets, and focuses on “guarding the deposit of faith.”
“It’s hard to see middle ground,” she said. “These are different strategies and understandings of what the Church is.”
The disagreements are compounded by the unresolved legacy of colonialism.
“We’re not going to find a harmonious society until we address this deeply,” with the same kind of intentionality used in discussions of slavery, Jefferts Schori said.
Jefferts Schori said she had urged a Communion-wide conversation about colonialism during her tenure as presiding bishop, but with little success.
“We have some bad karma coming into this conversation,” Grieb said, adding that many Global South Anglicans draw from a literal understanding of Scripture.
“If we had honored the conversation partners then, we would have been more careful to talk about biblical interpretation in a way that was more complicated and less convenient,” she said. “There is genuine confusion about a complete shift” in the interpretation of passages on sexual ethics.
Conflict is heightened by financial inequality between the West and the Global South, which has resulted “in clumsy strategies meant to help but not perceived as helpful,” Grieb said. “People see us [Episcopalians] as allied with the IMF, the CIA, the World Bank. When people are destabilizing your government, it’s hard to trust their reliability, commitment, and resolve.”
Prichard said Americans often find this opposition particularly difficult to understand: “We assume wherever our history has gone, … everyone else will follow after.”
He said the Episcopal Church largely failed, from 1991 to 2000, to consult with other Anglican churches about changing teachings about sexuality. “It made us look imperious and neo-colonial.”
The primates’ communiqué requires that members of the Episcopal Church not represent the Communion in ecumenical dialogues and on committees making decisions about faith and order.
Grieb described herself as one of only two Episcopalians directly affected by the penalty, through her service on IASCUFO. She was concerned about how the decision will affect future reconciliation between the Episcopal Church and the rest of the Communion: “It raises the question of how we talk across our differences when some of us can’t be in the room.”
Other panelists focused on the opportunities for a change in perspective afforded by the primates’ communiqué.
“Walking together requires hard work and lots of conversation, but it doesn’t require the structures of the Anglican Communion to do it,” Chapman said. “Almost despite the Anglican Communion, we carry on these relationships.”
Jefferts Schori echoed Chapman’s focus on cross-cultural relationships as the deepest value of the Communion, which she described as “a network of people seeking to grow deeper relationships with each other.”
She said that if the Episcopal Church has been humbled by the primates’ discipline, this too has spiritual value. “It is an opportunity to find the blessings of being on the margins for awhile,” she said. “We know it is a place of blessing, a place we are increasingly going, looking for Jesus on the margins.”
Grieb’s final word was hopeful: “It’s been a long, long time that we have been together in the project of learning how to be an Anglican Communion. Let’s figure out a way to stay together.”