Jordan Hylden and Keith Voets have offered the Episcopal Church a commendable perspective on the future of our life together in this denomination in “A way forward together”, a three-part series on this blog (see “Christ-centered comprehension,” “Ecclesiology,” and “Prayer book”). It is commendable mainly because it founds its proposals about ecclesial life where they should be founded: the saving work of Christ Jesus shared with his disciples through the mark of baptism. Or at least, this is how I interpret their notion of “Christ-centered comprehension.” The vision of a “mixed economy” of diverse theological views, ordered through diocesan integrities and bound by an actual (rather than mythic) consistency in common prayer, does indeed have some ballast in Anglican tradition, and derives from fundamental Christian imperatives that emerge from a common confession that “Jesus is Lord.”
Is the vision workable? Let me offer some brief remarks aimed at partially answering this question.
The notion of a mixed economy engaging Christians with deeply held but diverse convictions has ecumenical and ecclesiastical implications. The ecumenical implication is that baptism as the mark of Christian discipleship ought to be the primary visible basis of our unity as Christians. This is a well-founded theory (but only a theory, since in fact it has never been put into practice). But it is not clear, for instance, what kind of “visible unity” is envisaged. Hylden and Voets, for instance, indicate that it would at least involve eucharistic unity (sharing “in one bread, one cup, by grace”). More than that, they imply it would involve some kind of unity of polity — a single Episcopal Church, for instance, maintaining its one General Convention and, presumably, a set of financial common funds.
But eucharistic sharing need not lead to such common polity; indeed, where it has happened among Christians of divergent fundamental beliefs (e.g. Anglicans and Lutherans), they have never come together into a common polity. The ecumenical claim, then, has moved very quickly to the ecclesiastical claim, and Hylden and Voets have not explored how this could happen in practice — how or why, for instance, Syrian Christians and Presbyterians would, assuming they accepted the principle of common baptism (which they do not), move through Eucharistic sharing (still not possible) to a common polity. What is missing here is a clear grappling with the issue of the nature of the divergent convictions that are stake in any given Christian division. They are not all of the same kind.
In the Episcopal Church, for instance, the main (but not sole) divisive issue is located most prominently in the matter of same-sexuality and now same-sex marriages. Leaving aside the question of whether this issue is of the same “importance” as those various matters separating Syrian Christians from Presbyterians, the matter touches a particular kind of difference, in that it involves preeminently communal formation. Sexual persons are formed within the nurture, values, and practice of living societies of witness and accountability, and they in turn participate in that witness and formation. This being the case, the notion of a “mixed economy” surely cannot include “mixed communities of social formation.” Indeed, if we thought it did, we would simply allow churches to dissolve into the larger civil society itself. Whatever the notion of a “mixed economy” on the matter of sexual practice may involve, it is decidedly of a different order than a mixed economy that “agrees to disagree” about something, for the simple reason that communal formation is not about ideas but about practice. Raising children in churches that do or do not affirm same-sex marriages, families, and the ordering of sexual growth are practically and visibly distinct ways of life; the differences involved are not equivalent to a single group holding diverse views, since such communities by definition constitute two distinctly organized societies of value.
Hence, Hylden and Voets’ promotion of diocesan integrity: if the Episcopal Church is to have a “mixed economy” with respect to sexual life, then it will need to uphold and protect diverse communities of formation. In the Anglican Church, Hylden and Voets argue, this involves fundamentally the upholding and protection of diocesan integrity, where bishops have the authority and responsibility to order the common life of their flocks according to — in this case — distinct communal practices.
I happen to agree with this claim. But note what it implies ecumenically at least: Syrians and Presbyterians should live “together” by maintaining their distinct communal practices, ones that cannot overlap in terms of formation. Again, this is not a novel ecumenical idea; but it is one that, now applied to a single denomination, becomes unusual. How much can two distinct diocesan integrities engage one another? Where will the eucharistic sharing that is envisioned actually take place? Individually, at denominational meetings by representatives? As this or that person travels across diocesan boundaries on vacation? It could easily prove impossible for priests, bishops, and other leaders to move around across these boundaries, and lead and share in eucharistic gatherings, depending on the formative embodiments they carry with them. There is nothing wrong with that; but we should be clear that it is a “thin” view of ecclesial unity. And if this is not the view at work, then the character of same-sexuality’s affirmation as a “distinctive” has been (erroneously, in my mind) characterized as a second-order idea rather than as a communal practice.
More than that, however, is the fact that Hylden and Voets are actually arguing for something that the General Convention of TEC has already rejected and that national disciplinary canons and their prosecution have contradicted. This fact needs to be underscored: for Hylden and Voets’s notion of diocesan integrity — ordered by the teaching authority and responsibilities of the bishop — to succeed, the actual practice of TEC’s leadership must be rejected and a conscious re-appropriation of traditional Episcopal Church constitutional self-understanding must be reestablished. The current disciplinary canons simply cannot guarantee such diocesan integrity as Hylden and Voets propose, and these canons have already been used to threaten, constrain, and actually depose bishops who have argued and witnessed for the integrity Hylden and Voets champion.
I will not comment on the perspective Hylden and Voets offer regarding the Prayer Book. I can only say here that its accomplishment is made difficult by just the deeply practical and communal issues involved in the diversities and “mixed economies” they are engaging. If Anglicanism has had any peculiar Christian claim, it is that “common prayer”, centered on the whole Scriptures as authoritative, stands as the formational basis for Christian faithfulness. How to connect such common prayer with the protected communal distinctions Hylden and Voets imply remains deeply problematic, although not necessarily impossible.
One of the attractive aspects of Hylden and Voets’s proposal is its deep commitment to Christian witness within the larger civil society — a witness that they rightly wish to see stripped of its current acrimony and division. What they propose is a kind of “space” for such a witness to find its legs again, a pax or treuga Dei, an ecclesial “truce of God” among antagonistic Christians, in which God can then inspire witness according to his own purposes rather than according to the litigious constraints of his warring children. This vision is, I would argue, the minimal act of fidelity Christians can offer in our era, and I would embrace it whole-heartedly. But is the Episcopal Church able to embrace it?
There are at least two practical conditions necessary for this vision of a mixed economy founded on diocesan integrities to be successful. The short-term condition requires the Presiding Bishop-elect to announce publicly that he will not permit the disciplinary process to go forward against bishops who maintain the diocesan integrity we have outlined above; and that he will not support, through the national church, local litigation against such bishops. Title IV canons (unconstitutionally as I see it) grant him that practical power. If Bishop Curry is unable or unwilling to make such a public declaration and follow it through, I cannot see how the notion of diocesan integrity put forward here has any future in TEC. Nor, frankly, do I expect Bishop Curry to make such a public announcement; he has done nothing but demonstrate, in his episcopate thus far, support for the destructive policies of the current Presiding Bishop. People, however, can change. Whatever the case, the deepest form of trust, based on word and action both, is necessary for Hylden and Voets’s proposal to succeed.
The second condition, in the long-term, is obviously for General Convention to re-order its priorities and revise its currently inchoate and constitutionally unfounded canons around discipline and liturgical practice. This condition may actually be possible, if — and only if — the younger generations of clergy and lay leaders who may move to the fore in the coming decade can view matters with some of the clarity of Hylden and Voets, and can actually engage the legislative process of TEC for the good. Such engagement will require more than a vague willingness, but the deployment of focused energies that, alas, the impatience of many today cannot sustain.
But these strike me as actual conditions, not simply preferred qualities of circumstance. Without either of these conditions being met, it will be a sore season for mission in the Episcopal Church. Boomers, Generation X, millennials, and the (worrisomely eschatological-sounding) “Generation Z” should all be able to agree, at least, on this.