The announced resignation of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of England’s rejection of the Covenant promises a new free-for-all period among Anglican churches. Meetings are promised in London, Toronto, and elsewhere. Who knows where all this will lead.
The moment, however, does provide a good opportunity to rethink and restate what conservative Anglicans like myself, who have remained in The Episcopal Church, are really after. It’s worth reminding ourselves of our goals. I speak only for myself here, of course; although I imagine my views are shared by many. And what it comes down to is this: what we want is to be left alone, canonically and legally, to witness to the Gospel in worship, teaching, and deed in hope of God’s truth in Christ triumphing over our divisions and disobedience.
This is not a complicated desire really. But it seems to be deeply misunderstood. Some traditional Anglicans who have left TEC seem to think that our staying is a form of treason with regards to the truth (and their own needs). I have little to say on this front, other than that I consider the witness of our Lord with respect to his own people and his own troubled apostles sufficient justification for our choice to stay. God gave himself to the godless — and we must include ourselves and our churches in this latter category as much as anybody.
There are others who seem to think that, given our rejection of the gay agenda of TEC and elsewhere, our larger desire embodies a coercive homophobia and a will to destroy TEC from within. It is worth briefly saying something here, since these critics are in fact those with whom we often share a local church.
On the first matter, such coercive antipathy has never been the case, unless of course one defines a rejection of the inclusive gay agenda as ipso facto homophobic and oppressive. Many progressives have in fact set in motion a zero-sum game of tolerance by reducing the Gospel to an application of the justice of human rights. Having done so, however, what then has been the point of any discussion and discernment in the first place? For with such a definition, there are no minds to be “changed,” only silenced.
Still, we have never sought to excommunicate self-identified gay members of the church. Rather, we have resisted the claim that individual priests, bishops and the General Convention can enact changes in the traditional teaching of the Church catholic on this matter by legislative majority voting, let alone by individual fiat. These are instead matters that demand engaged consensus, founded on agreed Scriptural teaching. Such a consensus was always impossible, however, once permission was granted to ignore teaching and discipline before decisions were ever made together, both in TEC and in the Communion. The longer this contradiction between practice and actual consensual decision-making was permitted, the more irrelevant and indeed destructive of common life many ecclesial structures of TEC and the Communion became. That was hardly the fault of conservative Episcopalians!
And that is one of the reasons we have been committed to upholding the traditional Episcopal polity of diocesan sovereignty with respect to General Convention: i.e. that dioceses and their bishops have the power to remove themselves from General Convention and that the decisions of Convention are subject locally to diocesan ratification. This is not an “anti-TEC” outlook; it is, rather, a considered understanding of what TEC and its members are about and how we are organized for our mission. In the end, we realize that such a diocese-based polity is profoundly incomplete: it makes sense only to the degree that dioceses and their bishops engage one another in the work of apostolic witness, understood in its traditional catechetical and evangelistic accountabilities. In theory, the House of Bishops and General Convention were meant to serve such common apostolic practice, but the opposite has happened, as legislative processes controlled by politically-organized interest groups have short-circuited the mutual restraint, consultation, and finally patience — understood literally — of common life. We have no desire to destroy TEC; rather we want to see our common life strengthened on the basis of the apostolic trust our church was given and for which we are responsible. And to do that, we need the uncontested space, within the national church and also within dioceses, in which to let our ministries function honestly.
Given this general desire, let me speak more positively to some of the commitments a conservative Episcopalian like myself will hold, insofar as they might inform the coming discussions that are rushing towards us from the horizon of the Communion’s volatile condition.
The word “synodality” refers simply to “walking together,” as along a “single way.” And a “synod” — the “way together” — is a formalized space for focusing such a practice by Christians. It is not first of all a decision-making — or a legislative — gathering. It is rather the place where the ongoing character of Christian common life is reiterated, articulated, strengthened, and directed. Hence, synods are not about making rules, in the first place, but about finding ways to discern the common mission of the Church in a manner that is faithful to the Lord whom together we follow as disciples. The Lambeth Conference is appropriately called a “synod” in this regard. And all the debate over the 1998 Lambeth I.10 resolution was appropriately a part of its synodality, neither to be taken as a “law,” nor to be dismissed or ignored or avoided as an irrelevance. General Convention is also appropriately called a “synod” in this sense, if — as with any gathering — its purposes are rightly pursued.
Synodality is essential to the church because of the nature of the Church as the Body of Christ, among other things. One might think that small groups can be “synodical” better than large groups — a congregation as opposed to a Communion. But history tells us otherwise: the Body of Christ is a challenge with “two or three gathered” or with millions. And to be faithful as the Body of Christ, we must be faithful synodically as small groups, congregations, dioceses, national churches, and global communions (and finally the Church catholic). They are all part of a single network of “walking together” behind and with Christ Jesus, “one flock,” one “way,” the “Way” that is the “way together” in Christ, because of course He is “the Way.”
Conservative Episcopalians like myself have promoted and continue to champion the Anglican Covenant because it is the only concrete proposal that lies before us that is truly synodical in this sense. It is shaped by concrete commitments, acknowledged foundations, and common practices and hopes regarding such “life-together.” Of course, it makes no sense to adopt a Covenant whose commitments one either cannot accept or enact. We recognize that TEC as a whole is not ready to do this. But we think that there are those in TEC — and surely in the Church of England, not to say around the world — who are ready for such a synodical life. Furthermore, we believe that if we are able to pursue it freely, its own value will be sufficiently attractive to provide the basis for some change of mind. Those who will not adopt the Covenant must not impede those who wish to do so. How the two groups work things out after that is not clear. But the very encouragement such openness involves will go a long way to permitting a fruitful way forward.
Shortly after 2003 General Convention, I submitted my resignation from TEC’s ecumenical committee. I did so for two reasons: first, I felt that our discussions with other churches had been subverted by having adopted decisions at variance with previous promises we had made: how have a dialogue with a church that could so easily change its mind? Second, I simply wanted to lodge a protest. I now consider my action to have been a mistake. One should try to walk with others even when one is wounded and incapacitated; even when one is mistrusted and when one has sinned or been sinned against. In the end, synodality is meaningless without the reality of the great Physician behind it. Second, “protests” are a dime a dozen, and can be made without destroying the capacity to speak together. Granted, the pressures to walk apart in this era are both enormous and persuasive.
For who needs the fighting? To say that conservative Episcopalians want peace is an understatement. When I say we want “to be left alone” that is not to be understood in terms of rejecting peaceful engagement; it is, in fact, a code-word for such peace. Peace is a goal for the Scriptures; but it is also a way of life, part of the “way together” (Mat. 5:9; Ps. 34;14; Rom 14:17). The “fruit” of the past years is sufficient witness against how we have gone about our business and the decisions we have made.
Discipline can form the context for peaceableness. This is what I have always argued with respect to the larger Church’s need to hold one another accountable for the decisions we make or wish to make. But “discipline” within the context of utter disorder rarely rises above arbitrary violence. And this is what we have seen more and more of, at least metaphorically, as the past ten years have evolved. I have always considered the lawsuits among or by Christians to be deadly, and so they have generally proved. Not only are they contradicted by our Lord’s own teaching, their fruit has been bitter in practice. Again, the lashing out against bishops and clergy, whether formally or informally, in the midst of partisan arguments; or similar browbeating within dioceses or congregations has been a wounding sorrow for many. Who would not wish to be free of this?
But as the acts of disorder are from the Evil One, so are the temptations to throw up one’s hands in their face. True peace, as Jesus himself taught us, comes with a cost — the “sword” aimed at one’s own heart. So be it. And given that fact, it is worth living into this peace by walking Jesus’ Way, and not simply conceding its impossibility. We believe that this too, and especially this, will bear the fruit of synodality in the long run. Let us live our Christian lives in peace, and let us be willing, in so doing, to bear the burden of that commitment.
One of the great victims of Episcopal and Anglican disorder over the past few years has been our larger synodical life, that is, our search for the healing of Christian division among separated churches. To be sure, this and that “dialogue” continues; but most participants will tell you privately, if not in public, that a shadow of wariness and even cynicism hangs over most of them. But conservative Episcopalians are committed to the ecumenical vision of the past 100 years precisely because we believe that synodical peaceableness is the proper mode in which the truths of the Gospel can be rightly articulated and heard. We shall seek ways to further this vision no matter how difficult it may appear, and no matter what resistance is offered. We are appalled by the easy dismissal of Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism, and so on by many TEC leaders, seeing them as reactionary impediments to their agenda. That is exactly what they are not: they are the bulk of the global Christian family with whom our future is bound, and anything that dissolves these bonds must be countered somehow. And, obviously, the same is true of those more conservative Anglicans within the world who form the majority churches of the Communion, and those who have chosen to leave TEC in particular.
It was a grave mistake, I believe, to have successfully pressured, at the 2009 ACC meeting, for the revision of the final section of the Anglican Covenant, largely because one of the concrete ecumenical openings the Covenant offered — the adoption of the Covenant by “other churches” — was thereby removed. “Other churches” is what Jesus is about, in part; other sheep, other sinners, other “children” scattered in the world. In itself, revising the text by removing the reference to “other churches” adopting it, is not fatal. Silence is not prohibition. But the message that was sent by this revision seemed mean-spirited and hostile. In 1920, Anglican leaders at Lambeth courageously issued a sacrificial call to Christian unity that remains unequalled in its clarity and evangelical passion. Sadly, it remains unfulfilled, and in fact increasingly disdained by Anglicans themselves. But that is to undercut the very mission we have to proclaim the Gospel.
Conservative Episcopalians aim especially at such proclamation. And we deeply desire the freedom and fervor in our own churches to engage such proclamation. Little needs to be said about the centrality of preaching the Gospel to the world, and to those who do not believe in Christ as God’s own Son given in sacrificial love on our behalf. That preaching is itself the means of peace and of common life. One thing that we know is that this Good News is less and less heard in countries like the United States and Canada. Not because there are no Christians to speak, but because the very tenor and character of the message has been so compromised by disordered Christian life.
Conservative Episcopalians desire the free and peaceable space to train, equip, send out and support evangelists of all kinds — not just those who fit the expectations of certain social and ideological traditions that have weighed our church down for too many years. In fact, we have the resources to do so, and are doing so, although the suspicions and obstructions of many dioceses render such work limited in large parts of TEC. Yet perhaps, if we can at least convince others of the genuineness of our commitments, the fears that have hemmed us in can bit by bit dissolve. Church planting, alternative forms of ordained leadership, and the rest need more as well as different formative preparation than in the past, and need recruitment of a wide variety of personalities. The current hostile suspicions in the church have actually ended by limiting formation and personnel to what were once “safe” modes that are now simply inadequate ones. We are ready to do far more than the past few years suggest is possible.
One distinguishing mark of conservative Episcopalians — and here I speak about others especially whom I know — is the deep hopefulness with which they approach the Church’s life. We have learned that carefully strategic and political positioning is a weak tool when it comes to pursuing the purposes of our common life as we have discerned it. The Church belongs to God, who has claimed it for the glory of His Son. And this is true of the disparate pieces of the Church, like TEC as well. Ordering local and national convention legislation, organizing partisan allies at meetings, pressuring budgets and secretly preparing legal maneuvers — sometimes this can provide short-term ‘gains” for a position, but in the long-term it is actually a toxic form of Christian life. The most we can and the most we are asked to do is to speak clearly and openly about what we know, and to do so gently — “the truth in love.”
To be sure, that itself is often viewed as a “political act,” but that cannot be helped. For the Church belongs to God, and given the strange mystery of God’s own exercise of power in the world — a mystery embodied in Jesus — we cannot be sure if God’s purposes may not counter everything we had thought to count as success. Paul’s ecclesiology can be neatly summed up in his words from Romans 15:13: “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.” At least, this is a true — and sufficient — vision of the Church of Christ for times like these.
I think it fair to say that many conservative Episcopalians like myself look to the coming days of Anglicanism with some trepidation. Most of this unease, however, comes from residual anxieties over ongoing hostilities such as we have experienced from the past few years. At the same time, such learned patterns of feeling are not good gauges of the present or future. We know that. Far more important are the things we value, pray for, lift up in our ministries, and thus know in hope to be promised in the real grace of God’s work in Christ. To look upon these realities is in fact to be deeply encouraged. It is, therefore, worth reaffirming who we are in this time. For as objects of God’s grace in Christ, we are in just the right place.