Like many of my friends and colleagues, I did not grow up in the Episcopal Church. I was nurtured in a Pentecostal tradition, in which running in the Spirit and falling out from the power of God was a necessary, outward, and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace. Indeed, I have often commented on how the Pentecostal church prepared me to be sacramental in my theology; if one is accustomed to God showing up in tongues and the miraculous, then why not also in the stuff of life? Why not also in bread and wine? Thus began my journey into a Catholic structure, in which submission to authority takes on substance in the oversight of a bishop and Christ’s presence is objectively known in the breaking of bread. Pentecostalism primed me for walking the Canterbury Trail into the Episcopal Church. So did the Rwandan-sponsored Anglican Mission in America (AMiA) and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

I was ordained in 2009 to plant churches in AMiA, trained by some of the strongest Christians I have ever met. My mentors, two in particular, are to this very day among the greatest spiritual leaders I have ever known. I love them dearly. They believed in me and saw within me a calling to the priesthood, which was nowhere on my vocational radar. They entrusted me with ministry opportunities and sent me out to learn, fail, and occasionally, by God’s grace, to succeed. This is why it was doubly painful when AMiA suffered an internal meltdown due to issues related to finances and submission to authority. I wanted to be a priest in the Church, not a missionary society. Thus began my journey toward the Episcopal Church.

Of course, if I had stayed with Rwanda, my orders would have eventually ended up in the ACNA, in which many of my friends now serve. I was present at the first provincial assembly of the ACNA as a delegate, and I was encouraged by the movement toward greater unity among disparate Anglican groups. Nevertheless, by what I trust to be the providence of God, I was eventually received in the Episcopal Church, my orders having been regularized. My goal is not to provide an apologetic for my decision, nor for which “side” is in the right; to ask such questions means the game is already lost. This game of Anglican tug-of-war has been played for some time (at least since the Non-Jurors), and it is the wrong way of thinking about things. I suspect that many clergy and parishioners on all sides are trying to lift high the cross, even if we disagree on what a cross-shaped disciple and church might look like. And besides, one can always find a bad example in each tribe to confirm what one already wants to believe about the other. I am instead concerned with the terms used and the strategies of engagement employed across our divisions, especially of late with reference to Truro Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and leadership within the ACNA (for more on this, see here).

During the last year, in particular, I have become increasingly engaged and grounded in ecumenical theology, having studied various ecumenical texts and developed several ecumenical relationships. I am a child among giants in this arena, but I trust my newfound passion for this area of work will endure throughout the course of my ministry. Given my experience on the inside of both the ACNA and TEC, it seems to me there are several items in the ecumenical toolbox that might be employed for the hard work of reconciliation between Anglicans, especially within the Anglican Communion. For instance, at a symposium held at the Pontifical Gregorian University last October, Dr. Paula Gooder of King’s College, London, called for an “ecumenism of wounded hands,” a recognition that “we cannot heal ourselves.” Her call is predicated on the notion that our healing is incomplete (and therefore is not gospel healing), until it includes the healing that comes through reconciliation with those from whom we are divided. The cross does not need to be protected, it needs to be invoked, carried, embedded, and embodied across our divisions.

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In a divided church we deny the power of the cross under the claim of protecting it (from the theological bankruptcy of “those liberals,” or “those conservatives”). We build up the very walls the cross has broken down, yet it continues to disrupt our tidy denunciations and show as bankrupt our oversimplifying propaganda against one another. The cross does not need our protection, rather, we need its embodied practice of kenosis, for our enemy, and yes, even our estranged Anglican brothers and sisters. To misquote Peter Kreeft, the gravity of grace pulls Christians toward unity, not away from it.

In other words, Truro’s efforts to reconcile with the Diocese of Virginia, and beyond it, might be considered scandalous by opposed parties precisely because it is of the same order of scandal found at the foot of the cross, reconciling Jew and Gentile. The messy nature of reconciliation is not reducible to the neatly packaged denunciations used to mark off the other as beyond the pale, even if such statements justify the existence of one’s station. I recognize that I am not privy to relevant details from both sides in this case, so I will abstain from making a judgment beyond this simple observation. But it strikes me that the language used by many TEC and ACNA bloggers and ecclesial authorities is often analogous to language employed on all sides during the Reformation. And this point could be extended throughout the Anglican Communion. Have we learned nothing?

A proposal: Can we not employ ecumenical tools to help the internal breakdown within the Anglican Communion? Are the only categories we have for one another apostate or renegade or unchristian? Can the state of Anglicanism across the alphabet soup really be summed up so tidily and dismissively? Are our mutual denunciations not grounded to some degree in self-serving historiographies that will later be seen as limited, oversimplifying, or even bankrupt in some presuppositions (perhaps even core presuppositions)?

Our rhetoric and patterns of engagement presume an all-or-nothing game, similar to the anathemas of the Reformation, some of which (on this side of history) are now seen as only partial glimpses of the theological whole, at best. For instance, what Anglican among us who has deeply studied ecumenical theology can seriously still insist with many Reformers that the Roman Catholic Church is the “whore of Babylon”? Our historiographies have shifted, enlarged, and moved toward healing. Might we not learn a lesson from this for our internal divisions? Work such as that at Truro may not be a denial of communion or a transgression of episcopal authority, but instead the cutting ecumenical edge of healing, bringing forward what many put off, as we sit comfortably within the narratives that justify movements as they exist or persist in division. I pose this statement for TEC as well as ACNA, genuinely. But even if this is not the case, the point still holds that ecumenism has sewn a field ripe for harvest for our communion (if not for reunion, then at least for conversation).

Particularly, we would be better served by talking about “degrees of communion” (cf. Ut Unum Sint, no. 14), as Roman Catholics are doing with their ecumenical partners (and vice-versa). Or as Paul Avis recently suggested at the Living Sacrifices Conference, we might speak in terms of impaired versus broken communion, technical terms with definitive theological meaning (which have been employed at points, but in an ad hoc way). We ought to recognize gifts that serve as the basis of recognizing communion, and we could invoke still other theological categories and language now commonplace in the ecumenical movement. For instance, the Princeton Proposal on Christian Unity, In One Body Through the Cross (a document worth reading and promoting), posits the following: “Authentic commitment to unity is always commitment to unity in the truth of faith and doctrine. When truth and unity are played against one another, both are misrepresented” (p. 44. n. 47). It adds: “Renewing doctrinal discipline requires developing forms of common teaching and witness to the apostolic faith across a wide spectrum of churches” (p. 45, n. 48, emphasis mine). Such statements have rich and convicting implications for the ways in which we Anglicans are carrying on in our divisions, but also offer models of talking about the same.  In other words, as Paul Avis, Ephraim Radner, Michael Poon, and Archbishop Josiah Idowu Fearon recently suggested at the Living Sacrifices conference, we need to think theologically about division, not only about our reasons for disagreeing with one another.

As an aside, I know from the perspective of the ACNA and other groups this proposed point begs the question of whether TEC is really Christian. It just is a brute fact that there are Christians on all side of the divides. Again, as Paul Avis insisted last week, Christians — by virtue of a common baptism — will always have some degree of communion, even when certain people think it is gone: this is simply an implication of baptism.

Instead, division has become an accepted and, at points, celebrated social reality in our Anglican communities. But a divided people is not who we are in Christ, nor whom we will be in the “life of the world to come.” We must strive to live now how we will live then, even as tares temporarily grow among the wheat.

Our ontology flows from the baptismal font, in which water is thicker than blood, and unity exists already by virtue of our baptism into the Trinity. Ecumenism calls us to move from the indicative to the imperative. How will our baptismal unity that exists across boundaries take on substance relationally and institutionally in more nuanced ways in the midst of our divisions?

On a related but slightly different note, as traditionalists from various contexts run toward the Benedict Option, I would submit that such movement must include an “ecumenical option,” otherwise the resulting ecclesial tribes will end up mirroring our ghettoized political tribes, as our Anglican factions are increasingly doing. Most young people simply do not care about our squabbles; they are better ecumenists than us! My hope is that a younger generation of Anglicans and Episcopalians, unscarred by the wounds of intra-Anglican battles, may arise and form relationships strong enough to bear the weight of necessary dialogue, disagreement, and repentance.

There is hope. A colleague of mine has recently been playing softball with several ACNA clergy and parishioners who have become close friends and kingdom colleagues of his, although he is decidedly and unashamedly committed to TEC. It’s a small beginning, but a beginning nonetheless. To the extent that it is a gathering space of dialogue and exchange, the dividing wall of hostility may collapse on a ball diamond, not in the sacristy, at least not yet. Who knows, maybe prayer and work toward reconciliation may be around the corner.

I say, “Play ball!”

About The Author

Fr. Clint Wilson is associate rector for Christian Faith and formation at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, and serves as the ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.

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4 Comments on "Anglican division, the cross, and ecumenism"

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I think there’s something to the notion of the “ecumenism of the ball diamond” and analogous forms of interaction. I belong to a bi-weekly reading group dedicated to slowly working its way through the Rule of St. Benedict. The group contains Roman Catholics, Orthodox, a Presbyterian, a Quaker, a Lutheran, a couple of evangelical ACNA-ers, and three Anglo-Catholic ACC-ers. (This sounds like the set-up to a joke.) But the group works marvelously because we’re focusing on a figure who’s early enough to be the common heritage of us all and for whom we don’t all already have a pre-made hermeneutic… Read more »

Dear Cory: Thank you for your thoughtful and gracious response. I agree with your point re: the starting point…ecumenism usually begins and proceeds most effectively around areas of convergence. This allows the relationships to develop that can then subsequently sustain the type of dialogue that might happen around more taxing issues. Also, I love the idea of your group working through the Benedictine Rule. Have you been surprised any by areas of agreement that have emerged through the dialogue? Keep up the good work!

The author does not get it, not at all. Reconciliation and restoration of fellowship in the churches requires repentance and adherence to the Word of God. Without these, there can be no reconciliation. “Can two walk together unless they are in agreement?” (Amos 3:3). More importantly, note what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:14-17.

Dear Bruce: Thank you for your reply, but I am afraid you beg the very question I am pressing into through the post. You cite 2 Cor. 6:14-17, which speaks of Christians not being matched with unbelievers. The point I am making is precisely about Christians across denominational lines who are united by a common baptism. Even if you don’t grant that there are Christians of a progressive ilk, do you really believe there are no Christians at all in tribes other than your own? If there are, then how do you embody reconciliation and restoration that is hindered by… Read more »
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