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Don’t Cheat the Prophet

Sic et non • Second of three essays

By William G. Witt

The beginning of G.K. Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill refers to a game called “Cheat the Prophet.” In this game, the players listen attentively to wise predictions about the future. “They then go out and do something else.”

In the current mess that is the Anglican Communion, none of us knows what the future holds, although some things can be predicted with some accuracy. For example, it was predicted in 2003 that if the Episcopal Church were to elect as bishop a man living in a same-sex relationship that the unity of the Anglican Communion would be threatened. And that has certainly happened. Probably no one predicted the way that it has happened, as a kind of slow-motion schism.

Zink’s essay presumes a future based on an uncertain prediction: that the Diocese of South Carolina’s declaration of itself as an “extra-provincial diocese in the Anglican Communion” is likely an attempt at a permanent solution. None of the difficulties he proposes seems to be insuperable. I can name at least three retired bishops who live in the diocese now who could participate in the ordination of a new bishop. I would imagine that numerous Global South bishops would stand in line for the chance to participate in forming a new province.

The one obstacle that would likely not be overcome is that extra-provincial provinces “mostly fall under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury.” There is no more likelihood of Justin Welby recognizing the Diocese of South Carolina as a legitimate partner in the Anglican Communion than there was of Archbishop Robert Duncan having been invited to his enthronement. But this is simply to recognize that there has been a de facto schism existing in the Anglican Communion since the failure of Archbishop Rowan Williams to follow through on implementing the recommendation of the Anglican Primates’ Dar es Salaam Communiqué of 2007, and the subsequent refusal of bishops representing the majority of the Anglican Communion to attend Lambeth 2008.

Still, there is no reason to presume that South Carolina’s declaration of itself as an extra-provincial diocese is more than an ad hoc solution to an immediate crisis. To speculate about the permanence of this situation or about which Anglican entity South Carolina might align itself with is equally a case of playing “Cheat the Prophet.”

The issue that is little addressed in such discussions is the theological nature of episcopacy. What does it mean to be a bishop? Standard Church histories make clear that the office of bishop is about continuity, specifically continuity between the apostolic Church and the catholic Church of the second century. To be a bishop is to recognize and submit oneself to the canonical authority of the Old and New Testaments as the faithful witness of prophets and apostles to the triune God revealed in the history of Israel, the saving work of Jesus Christ, and the Church as summarized in the Rule of Faith.

Whether bishops of the Episcopal Church have acted in continuity with this apostolic Church in proceeding to approve of same-sex unions is precisely the issue that is splitting the Anglican Communion. There are, of course, issues of universality involved as well. A bishop is a bishop not just for a local diocese but for the whole Church. In the long run, an extra-provincial diocese accountable only to itself is problematic. But then again, a national church that refuses to be accountable to an international communion has brought the Anglican Communion to its current crisis, even as a bishop who does not understand his chief role to keep intact the apostolic witness has rather missed the point of being a bishop.

William G. Witt is assistant professor of systematic theology at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.


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