By Christopher Wells
1. Learning to Walk and Talk
Episcopal Church leaders, and our friends and colleagues around the Anglican Communion and beyond who care, are now in the throes of interpreting what the 79th General Convention did and did not accomplish in Austin, Texas, during the last several weeks. Interpretive work is required to suss out the meaning of often-vague resolutions, writ under duress or as difficult compromises, reflecting multiple authorial hands; resolutions that sometimes also suffer from poor articulation, unhappy syntax, lexical confusion, and a measure of theological foppery, even as they achieve some good. Here’s looking at you, Resolution A068, on all things liturgy (save marriage), which cut off comprehensive prayer book revision by preserving the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, “the product of about 100 years of ecumenical scholarly convergence,” and charting a long-term course of reform comparable to that found in most of the Anglican Communion, to wit, “expansive and dynamic bodies of authorized texts, which refer back to a historically normative book,” to quote Dean Andrew McGowan’s helpful mid-convention missive.
We may derive some comfort from recalling analogous hermeneutical conundra of greater councils — Vatican II, for instance, famous for carefully constructed arguments that seemingly give as they take away, inspiring and frustrating in equal measure; call it richness, under the heading “The Best We Can Do for Now: Both A and B.” Inversely, traditional doctrinal anathemas mostly laid down what not to do or say, thus creating a bounded space within which true and faithful speech about God, the Church, and so forth could proceed with licit diversity and creativity.
Christian theology has always been reticent to define too much, because wisdom seeks to inculcate humility and reserve so as to protect conscience, leave room for pastoral discretion and local discernment, and avoid circumscribing God. Indeed, regarding this last, precisely no one in the whole Western Christian tradition has imagined we can understand God, much less make him over in our — male, or for that matter, female — image. Recall questions 3-13 of the first part of Aquinas’s Summa, setting out “how God is not,” in service of true and devout speech about the One who is unknowable, save by his effects.
I start here in order to place the humble ecclesiological labors of Episcopalians within a continuing stream of attempts to do the right thing over time in the context of relationships with God and with one another that, we hope, endure and mature. We are striving to grow, by God’s grace, into deeper faithfulness, and we “make space” for one another and our differences in the name of interpersonal and inter-ecclesial truth and love, in structures of unity and promise: structures inscribed in the gospel that would frame and form our loyalty. In this way Christian life together compounds our several households — marital, familial, ecclesial (see Matt. 12:48-50) — by setting them within the all-encompassing reach and reordering of Israel’s redemption (Eph. 2:12; Gal. 6:16). God has acted in Christ and seeks to incorporate the peoples of the world within the body of his Son “through the cross” (Eph. 2:16). The Trinity has set sail in the visible ark that is the Church: a great holy, catholic, apostolic mission to the nations.
If God still has a vocation for Anglicans the world over, bound in love as one family to hasten wider unity and reconciliation within the one Church, praise the Lord. Just this hope should be our aim; that is, we must not fail to place even the steps of a General Convention within the comprehensive, world-historical frame of the gospel. Our church — I speak as an Episcopalian — is a very small part of the movement of Christ-followers across time and space, but it may still serve as a site for the formation of evangelical and catholic disciples. When we lose our way, repentance, conversion, and re-initiation should be sought! And this is a good word for us now: to pray for pre-catechumenal humility, in the hope of learning the way of wisdom and following it.
To be clear, I am not asking, like some of my friends, “Is the Episcopal Church a true church, or part of it?” Yes, and yes. Given that God has placed me here, where I can still serve with real affection for my fellows and for our broadly Anglican tradition of holy teaching and saintly sacrifice, my question concerns how we may non-idiosyncratically answer the call of Catholic truth and unity, holding the two together. And how can we respect those with whom we disagree — and, respecting them, learn to enjoy and love them, not wishing they were other than they are — while at the same time giving one another sufficient space for potential “flourishing,” should the Lord desire it (1 Cor. 3:6)?
This way of putting it has become mainstream in Anglican discourse of late — in the Church of England’s Five Guiding Principles; in the Episcopal Church since the 2015 General Convention in Salt Lake City, where the House of Bishops issued its “Communion across Difference” statement. We do well to consider carefully the theological coherence of these incipient arrangements. But let me first sketch what the General Convention in Austin apparently tried to do and offer my optimistic reading.
2. Ways of Walking
Start with the end to which convention committed itself in Resolution A227: Communion across Difference, which calls for a task force that will, in the next triennium, “seek a lasting path forward for mutual flourishing” both for progressives and traditionalists on the matter of marriage. The task force will presume, on the one hand, “General Convention’s firm commitment to make provision for all couples asking to be married in this Church to have access to authorized liturgies” and, on the other, “the indispensable place that the minority who hold to this Church’s historic teaching on marriage have in our common life, whose witness our Church needs.” To ask the obvious question, with which many are now wrestling: Can these two, arguably contradictory commitments be held together by the Episcopal Church, and if so how? We shall see, of course. Just insofar as the task force is promptly organized, properly populated, and otherwise equipped to do serious work, we may hope that it can give a push down a common path, even if it proves necessary for us to walk at something of a distance from one another in the short-, middle-, and even long-term.
And this takes us to the interim means to the possible path of our future common walking, namely, Resolution B012: Marriage Rites for the Whole Church. B012 should be seen as a means both because it proposes a modus vivendi on the way to A227’s “lasting path” and because it can be interpreted as a test-case attempt at structural differentiation of the sort that seems necessary for the foreseeable future. Here the creative key is the eighth resolve, which, in sprawling fashion, states that
in dioceses where the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or, where applicable, ecclesiastical supervision) holds a theological position that does not embrace marriage for same-sex couples, and there is a desire to use such rites by same-sex couples in a congregation or worshipping community, the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or ecclesiastical supervision) shall invite, as necessary, another bishop of this Church to provide pastoral support to the couple, the Member of the Clergy involved and the congregation or worshipping community in order to fulfill the intention of this resolution that all couples have convenient and reasonable local congregational access to these rites.
What has been established here? Several things: (1) The right of refusal to sanction same-sex marriage by traditionally minded bishops, tied to (2) a clear instruction (“shall”) to those bishops to call upon other bishops who will enable access to the marriage rite for same-sex couples through (3) “pastoral support” not only to the couple in question but to the congregation and the priest thereof. This resolve was supplied as an amendment on the floor of the House of Deputies by Christopher Hayes of California, and it served to draw the already-amended B012 closer to the substance of its original writing. I am told that Hayes’s amendment was developed in consultation with Bishop Ely of Vermont and others who, having read the midstream expression of concern by several of us (in this article on Covenant), wanted to recover the initially proposed compromise, which sought, as we wrote, “to preserve the role of bishops as chief teachers and liturgical officers for the congregations under their care.” With the episcopate thus preserved, Communion Partner dioceses could continue, we said, “walking together in full communion with Canterbury and the global Anglican Communion.” On the appearance of Hayes’s amendment, Communion Partner deputations generally got behind B012 and contributed to its overwhelming passage in the House of Deputies. In turn, on the introduction of a final amendment by the bishops — restoring the seventh resolve’s citation of Canon III.9.6(a), argued for in the same Covenant article — the Communion Partner bishops mostly supported B012, as well.
Even so, some critics on the left have, in retrospect, expressed consternation at the total accomplishment of B012. The relativizing, on several counts, of the seventh resolve’s assurance that “provision will be made for all couples desiring to use these marriage liturgies in their local congregation or worshipping community” has drawn special fire. Relativized how? First, per Canon III.9.6(a), rectors and priests in charge retain “full authority and responsibility for the conduct of the worship and the spiritual jurisdiction of the Parish, subject to the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, the Constitution and Canons of this Church, and the pastoral direction of the Bishop,” and “shall at all times be entitled to the use and control of the Church and Parish buildings.” Second, the eighth resolve underwrites the continuing role of all bishops as chief teachers, pastors, and liturgical officers in their dioceses. In the words of the Communion Partners’ consensus “Austin Statement,” published immediately following the convention:
Our church is called episcopal in order to indicate the primacy of bishops and dioceses within our polity, an ancient catholic principle. The diocese, not the congregation, forms the basic unit of the Church. We believe that the provisions of B012 for supplemental episcopal pastoral care enable the local adaptation of the historic episcopate, as provided in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, as a means toward unity within our church and with the wider Anglican Communion. (§10)
How Communion Partner bishops entrust couples, clergy, and congregations of their dioceses to the care of other bishops will need to be worked out patiently and charitably by all involved; and the converse will also be true, as traditionally minded congregations in progressive dioceses seek the oversight of Communion Partner bishops. We do well to recall that what became A227, the Task Force on Communion across Difference, started as a part of the original B012 in order to aid the development of wise arrangements, mindful of property and polity, beyond the heat and blunt force of General Convention. In defense of the unity of the whole, a Q&A on B012 was published before convention by its proposer, Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of Long Island, urging the Episcopal Church to avoid further “schism, division, and departure of members who have faithfully served our Church for many years. When mediating conflict, a common strategy is to find a way for all at the table to ‘get to yes.’” With such a process in view, the Communion Partner bishops were able, heading into Austin, to commend what they described as
a conversation with all stakeholders in the Episcopal Church, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and with the wider Anglican Communion in order to find such a truce of God, while preserving the current right of bishops to uphold and maintain the Windsor moratoria in their dioceses. If the proposal before us [namely, B012] passes at General Convention, we pledge to work within its bounds in a spirit of collegiality and friendship with all members of our church.
3. Where We Are
We say across difference, and by this we mostly mean, at the moment, differences about marriage, its definition and parameters. But the matter is enmeshed, theologically and culturally, in a wide web of questions concerning what it means to be made human in God’s image as men and women; questions concerning children and family, the very institution of marriage (its defensibility and desirability), divorce and remarriage; and a range of associated sociopolitical problems concerning the proper use of power and the best way to conceive of intercommunal reconciliation, tied to thorny questions about memory and forgiveness. Here, long histories of abuse, oppression, occupation, and grievance foster hardened resentments. From all such injuries inflicted on one another: Good Lord, deliver us. In other words, Lord, save us from ourselves. Remove from us our warring Gentile pride, circumcise our hearts (Deut. 30:6; Rom. 2:29), and overcome — once more, and finally — the dividing wall, counting us among the commonwealth of Israel (Eph. 2:12-14). Since “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22), we too may approach the Son of David to ask the most basic of all political questions: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
Let us assume, therefore, that all Christians are called to a common anthropological labor across difference on the way to truth and reconciliation, thence right ordering of our lives and communities under God. As our Lord and St. Augustine taught, neighbor love starts at home with the sister and the brother ready to hand; with the mugged man upon whom we happen; with the unlovely person in the adjoining pew. This is the school of the corpus mixtum — the mixed body of wheat and weeds, which is the Church (see Matt. 13:24-30) — that would work its curricular wonders by teaching the faithful to judge wisely both who to hang out with and who not to exclude, lest we cross God’s purposes. The Church is full, says Augustine, of “Christians in name only and not in reality” — in one memorable list:
drunkards, misers, cheats, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators, healers using sacrilegious amulets, devotees, spell-chanters, astrologers, and soothsayers versed in any and every ungodly trick.
The faithful should avoid all of this, while also recognizing that egregious sin cannot be extricated from the Church, by divine design. For God himself
shows forbearance toward such people, both to use this perverseness to train his own chosen ones in faith and good sense and thus strengthen them, and also because many of the number of the perverse progress beyond their present state and, out of compassion for their own souls, turn with intense passion to God so as to be pleasing to him. (Instructing Beginners in Faith [New City Press, 2006], pp. 105-08)
In this way, tolerance of others becomes a virtue for the faithful to cultivate, along with humility, in the assurance that God, who is faithful, will not let us be tested beyond our strength, but with the testing will provide the way out so that we may endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).
But this is only part of the story. Faced with Donatist heresy, Augustine simply urged return to the visible communion of the Catholic Church for all seeking salvation — not because outward membership in the Church guarantees eternal life (it does not), but because “outside the Church there is no salvation”: broken communion is surely a deal breaker (see On Baptism 5.27.38–5.28.39). Had St. Augustine attended the recent GAFCON Assembly in Jerusalem, he could have agreed to its impassioned warnings against false teaching, and he might have spoken in favor of councils of the Church designed “to consult, to decide, and if necessary to discipline.” He would have blanched, however (supposing that an Augustinian understanding of Anglican ecclesiality is imaginable), at GAFCON’s encouragement “to recognize confessing Anglican jurisdictions” willy nilly, absent wider adjudication and authoritative consensus about visible boundaries. If the hand of God is indeed “leading us toward a reordering of the Anglican Communion,” as GAFCON’s “Letter to the Churches” asserts, it will be orderly, as an agreement about the Catholic faith by the instruments of Anglican communion. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13), truth and unity being identical in God.
And we should say something more. 1,600 years after Augustine and downstream of countless divisions, we have learned to accept that the Church is wounded, with semi-permeable bounds. In a Roman Catholic idiom, multiple “communities” may faithfully bear their members unto salvation, though they be in less than full communion with one another. How so? Baptismal unity has grasped us, which bestows a character, and commonly shared faith follows. So far, so Augustinian.
But because, “often enough, both sides were to blame” for our unhappy divisions, the sin of schism is transposed into separated brethren doing the best they can with what they have inherited (Decree on Ecumenism 3; Catechism of the Catholic Church §817). The communion of the Church is impaired, therefore, but we might say only in the sense that the normal rules of Catholic life apply (see Lumen Gentium 48). On the one hand, “there have to be factions [lit. heresies] among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine” (1 Cor. 11:19). On the other hand: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21). The work of inter-ecclesial reconciliation is the work of intra-ecclesial reconciliation, and vice versa — a providentially imposed both/and to aid picking up the needed “discipline” that may save us from final “condemnation,” “but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 11:32, 3:14). A gracious, cruciform regimen, therefore, for formation in holiness.
In this familiar Corinthian situation, Anglicans and others may find again an opportunity for imaginative charity in discernment, including discernment about faith and order, which require boundaries, permeable and otherwise, and a readiness to teach confidently about Christian things. Resolution B012 secured something of this in its ecclesial layering, called by the Communion Partner bishops a “helpful space of differentiation, set within the wider communion of baptism and faith that we continue to share, however imperfectly” (“Austin Statement” §9). GAFCON is right to seek common counsel and common standards in accord with Scripture, in service of the Church’s unity and orthodoxy, which go together (just as heresy and schism are finally indistinguishable). None of this is optional for any Christian church seeking apostolic authenticity. GAFCON is wrong, however, to try to button things up too neatly — even within the one universal Church, and all the more within the Anglican Communion — in lieu of the Lord’s subsequent sifting. “Let both of them grow together until the harvest” (Matt. 13:30).
Anglican churches, and the global Communion as a whole, have a golden opportunity to focus in coming years on developing supple structures that may support a pan-Anglican truce of God, as a means of enabling greater articulation of truth: churches within churches, bound to one another by varying degrees, leaving room for the Spirit’s leading, and eager to discern right doctrine and obey it together. Such structures, established by provinces and connected to larger networks of voluntary association in the Communion, would need to create space for proper Anglican conciliarity, incorporating synodical consensus for those desiring it. The Communion Partners recently published a paper imagining this very thing (hyperlinked in §6 of the Austin Statement): a multi-staged common pilgrimage of Anglicans focused on articulating apostolic truth in service of catholic unity. As the paper concludes, such a model of
articulated Communion — diverse in extended membership, with a commitment to synodical witness — holds enormous promise for resolving long-standing tensions, unblocking missionary currents, and restoring ecumenical bridges.
Anglican diversity in communion presents a divinely appointed call in service of salvific ends, a call long since answered by our having collectively embarked on a road trip of would-be unity in love. The way (in via), surely difficult, is made navigable by the Son of God himself, similarly sent into the world and sanctified for our sake in the word of truth. He still walks with us and prays both on our behalf and on behalf of those who will believe in him through our word: that we all may be one (John 13:34-35; 17:14-26).