Making Room for Conservatives

Cæli enarrant

By Christopher Wells

Revision of remarks on the question “Does the Episcopal Church Still Have Room for Conservatives?” made at Virginia Theological Seminary, February 2012; last in a series

A final layer may be added, as both a bellwether of traditionalist conviction and a test case for the Episcopal Church’s present and future identity relative to its past: Will there still be room for conservatives if our church moves structurally away from the Anglican Communion and associated ecumenical relationships? To be sure, one may ask whether the Anglican Communion itself will manage to weather the storm of present divisions on the way to intensified — renewed and strengthened — bonds of mutual responsibility and interdependence, across vast expanses of culture and geography. Time will tell, as we wait especially for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the focus of unity, to lead at home and abroad. Meanwhile, the local and provincial churches of the Communion must face the problems of order for themselves, which tend to evolve around episcopal leadership.

That our church has only reaffirmed its principled commitment to the wider Communion at successive meetings of General Convention, even amid the hubbub of the last decade, is significant. But if this commitment is to be more than notional it must be fleshed out, and the obvious opportunity to do so remains the Anglican Covenant. Happily, the 2012 General Convention punted on the Covenant rather than definitively rejecting it (to the consternation of its most vocal critics), in order to preserve as broad a unity as possible within our own church and in the wider Communion. This was the better part of wisdom for the time being, short of full-throated affirmation of the Covenant. But a final answer will be required eventually.

As Colin Podmore recently noted in these pages, fully one fifth of the churches of the Anglican Communion are now bound together formally by the Covenant [TLC, April 28], and it remains hard to see how the visibility of Anglican communion may be preserved short of such a vehicle. In fact, the covenantal notion, applied to Anglican churches in relation to each other, may be traced especially to a host of missionary bonds developed between the Episcopal Church and others over the course of the 20th century. And this same creative ethos of interconnection and encouragement was fed by an especially Episcopal enthusiasm for, and leadership of, Faith and Order ecumenism, from its earliest days. The adoption by our House of Bishops of the Chicago Quadrilateral in 1886 stands as the landmark proof of this commitment, framed by a series of solemn declarations that still sing with an evangelical and catholic clarity. Especially pertinent is the fourth: that we seek to cooperate with other communions “on the basis of a common Faith and Order, to discountenance schism, to heal the wounds of the Body of Christ, and to promote the charity which is the chief of Christian graces and the visible manifestation of Christ to the world” (see BCP 1979, p. 877). The final text of the Anglican Covenant effectively works out this declaration in a sustained way, explicitly built on the Quadrilateral and subsequent structural developments at the Communion level (see the Covenant, sec. 1; cf. 4.1.1 et passim).

Should the Episcopal Church as a whole decline the opportunity to fulfill the solemn pledge of our bishops in 1886 by adopting the Anglican Covenant, conservative parishes and dioceses will need to do so as a matter of Christian duty. The Communion Partner coalition has already committed itself “to work toward the Anglican Covenant and according to Windsor Principles,” and several dioceses have formally acceded to the Covenant. The alternative is a declension into mere denomination — no longer earnestly desiring, in the words of the bishops’ first solemn declaration, “that the Saviour’s prayer, ‘That we all may be one,’ may, in its deepest and truest sense, be speedily fulfilled” (BCP, p. 876).

Conservatives have, by all accounts, little hand in shaping the present program of the Episcopal Church and of most dioceses, but we persist in many places, pray God with humility and charity. Just insofar as we do, and are provided room — and rooms of our own, as it were, when needed — we will be ecclesial catholics of a fertile sort: loyal to the vows we have made and to the Constitution and Canons; loyal to our parishes and dioceses and the faithful among them; loyal to the Anglican Communion as traditionally conceived (see Lambeth 1948) hence to its perpetuation, in part via much-needed reforms; and committed to loving those whom we have been given, starting at home and reaching out to the wider Christian family, and to the world, from there. In these and other ways we recognize a common accountability and seek to grow in holiness, to share the good news of Christ with the nations, and finally to attain to salvation.

Letter to the Editor

Is the Quadrilateral Alive?

Christopher Wells makes some interesting points in his first column on “Making Room for Conservatives” [TLC, April 14], but by and large he describes what would be an ideal situation in the Episcopal Church for conservatives, though the actual situation is far from ideal. Conservatives are welcome as long as they are willing to sit down, shut up, and keep the checks coming. If, however, they make so bold as to dissent from the liberal agenda, they have all manner of pressure brought to bear on them.

One who doubts this state of affairs need only look at the how the presiding bishop has handled (yea, verily, mishandled) the real Diocese of South Carolina. It was done in a way that was brutal and egregiously un-Christian.

The second column [April 28] refers to “clauses culled verbatim from the ‘Statement on Conscience’ accepted by the House of Bishops in 1977 to protect traditionalist views on women’s ordination.’” That may be true, but many of us on the conservative side remember what happened to those “guarantees of protection” a few years later. The revisionist wing of General Convention decided that it was time to move women’s ordination from the “optional” column to the “mandatory” column. That happened — and there were harsh penalties for those who dissented. Can anyone familiar with the last 30 to 40 years really believe that these “guarantees of protection” for those who affirm traditional marriage are worth anything?

The third column [May 12] speaks in an informed and laudatory manner of the work of the House of Bishops in regard to the Chicago Quadrilateral in 1886, whose adoption “stands as the landmark proof of this commitment, framed by a series of solemn declarations that still sing with an evangelical and catholic clarity.” Beautifully written indeed! But the reality is this: how many current members of the House of Bishops really want to affirm and continue the work of the Chicago Quadrilateral? I agree with Dr. Wells that the best way by far to affirm and continue the Chicago Quadrilateral is to affirm and stand strong for the Anglican Covenant. But will it happen? Don’t hold your breath!

Robert Stanley
Chattanooga, Tennessee

Christopher Wells responds
Thanks to Dr. Stanley for his stimulating and searching questions, which I understand. I share much of his sadness about the way things have gone. The difficulties for conservative witness within the Episcopal Church are real, which fact more or less occasioned the series in the first place; as I noted, the word still in the question posed to me by Dean Markham of VTS rather suggested that the answer may be no: No, there is no longer room for conservatives.

In fact, however, as I tried to indicate, conservatives remain in TEC in many places on their own terms, in self-described “conservative” parishes, and especially in the more conservative dioceses, which rightly and otherwise duly maintain local cultures in keeping with their reception of the faith. This being so, I was keen to think about how this place might be protected and expanded by the initiative of the majority party — thus, making room for conservatives. But there’s also an ecclesiological principle here that I would urge Dr. Stanley to seize and defend himself, namely, that local churches within our church — that is, dioceses — remain to date the most basic “units” of the Church, even within our small “Episcopal” corner thereof, and we lose sight of this, on all sides our current disputes, to our peril. To be sure, a more sustainedly cohesive view of provincial unity, thence global unity, also bears a catholic plausibility that we would do well to consider; but it ought not cut against the proper place of episcopal authority and leadership.

Ironically, by repeating the oft-heard claim that conservatives are welcome in TEC only so long as they sit down and shut up, Dr. Stanley is playing into the hands of those ecclesiological revisionists that would impose a top-down hierarchy without remainder, capable of propagating a single theological and moral and liturgical “culture” within the Episcopal Church.

With these important structural — ecclesiological and theological — questions hanging in the air, and alas pending in the courts, all members of our church would do well to remember and retrieve constructive alternatives: alternatives rooted in our history and our aspirations as a part of the body of the universal Church, and conveniently codified in our canons.


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